As Gwen Ifill Ceremony Postponed, Simmons Struggles with Ifill Legacy


Alex Bohanan

Journalism and Radio Ops students listen to Dean Brian Norman during a press conference.

Simmons University postponed both the internal and external launch events of the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities after harsh criticism regarding the hiring process that led to a white male dean.

Ifill, an alumna of Simmons, was an award-winning journalist with work featured in The Boston Herald, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and on NBC. During the 2004 elections, Ifill became the first black woman to ever moderate a vice-presidential debate and earned praise for her performance. Ifill  began to co-anchor and co-manage PBS NewsHour with co-anchor Judy Woodruff in 2013, where they eventually became the first two women to moderate a Democratic presidential debate during the 2016 elections.

“Gwen’s professional life was about breaking barriers as a black female journalist,” alum and NBC News anchor Rehema Ellis said in a letter addressed to President Helen Drinan. “It saddens me beyond measure that it appears you did not take that into full account when hiring the inaugural dean of the Ifill College.”

These sentiments were echoed by the African American Alumnae Association (AAAA), friends and colleagues of Ifill, and students. In an opinion piece published by The Boston Herald on Oct. 4, journalist Joyce Ferriabough Bolling called for Simmons to reopen the search for an inaugural dean.

“There will, no doubt, be those who read this and say the choice of a white male director of the Ifill institute is refreshing, that it crosses traditional lines and that’s a good thing, that it can be a kumbaya moment, and that race and gender shouldn’t matter in the selection. Race should absolutely matter. And gender, too,” Bolling said in her op-ed. “It matters to building on the legacy of a black woman. It matters because there was an opportunity here to create one where none existed, both for Simmons, which could use more black women at its top echelon, and to honor the spirit of a black woman who was a mentor to other black women.”

It was soon after this that administrators postponed the internal ribbon cutting event. Attendees would have included Ifill’s PBS Newshour co-anchor Judy Woodruff, Ifill’s brother Roberto Ifill, and WBUR host and alum Lisa Mullins, among other award-winning journalists and academics.

Dean Norman said in a press conference on Sept. 27 that it was a “tactical decision” made by Simmons administrators to postpone the events. In an email sent on Oct. 5 to faculty and staff and then on Oct. 8 to students, Dean Norman elaborated on the decision-making process.

“This was a difficult decision and it was informed by faculty and students involved in the launch planning, among many others. We simply couldn’t find a way to get to a moment of celebration right now,” Dean Norman said. “What remains true: It is special that a place like Simmons named a college after Gwen Ifill and it is an occasion to mark. But first we have work to do. That includes conversations with each other within Ifill College, in addition to the important Simmons-wide dialogues and actions around inclusion and equity organized by the OCEI [Office of Organizational Culture, Inclusion and Equity].”

During a community-wide meeting on Oct. 15, Dean Norman suggested that there are conversations that need to be had on campus before the Ifill ceremony events occur. While he could not give an official date, Dean Norman was hopeful that come next October, the Simmons community would be ready to host the Ifill ceremony events.

“I think that I — and all of Simmons — am thinking about when we as a community feel good about coming together in a moment of celebration for this thing that we’re in the process of building,” Dean Norman said. “Not now, we’ve figured out; my hope is maybe a year from now. Maybe on this anniversary, when we as a community feel ready to be able to maybe not launch… but…dedicate this thing that we’re in the process of building.”