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Business Officer Magazine

Gwen Ifill Breaks New Ground

An insightful Ifill finds a common thread among those who score personal and professional breakthroughs: a high level of academic attainment. She'll be in Boston with NACUBO to tell you more.

By Jeffrey N. Shields

Gwen Ifill is on a roll. She's been a longtime favorite on Public Broadcasting Service's Washington Week and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. She's a hero and role model for aspiring young African-American journalists. And now, her first book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (Doubleday, 2009), has lots of people talking.

The book is based on dozens of interviews with already prominent black leaders as well as emerging young African-American politicians who, as the book jacket notes, "are forging a bold new path to political power." Ifill notes that the book's subjects, including Barack Obama, are all highly educated. That fact supports her contention that higher education has a significant part to play not only in preparing America's ever-more-diverse population for achievement but in creating the environment in which all Americans have a chance to thrive.

In an interview with Business Officer, Ifill elaborated on some of the actions college and university leaders can take to position their institutions for such breakthroughs.

What do you make of President Obama's call for the United States to once again "have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world" by 2020? Do we have the political will to make that happen? And, if so, how will we achieve it?
It's never a bad idea for a president to promote high standards for educational achievement. If there's one connection between success and what I'd call "breakthroughs," it is education. In researching my recently released book, one characteristic exhibited by all the people who had broken through in any kind of profession, let alone politics, was that they had a high level of academic attainment. The president clearly is an example of that and sees the connection.

Almost anyone will tell you that whether advancement relates to getting a start in low-level county government or capturing the highest governing platform, the White House, or whether the achievement is economic or emotional, education is at its core. So, I don't think it's surprising to hear a president make a call for that.

As for political will, that really depends on a whole lot of other factors, including the many other things that are competing for the American dollar. Right now, as we well know, because of the economy, that competition is fierce, and the case has to be made that education is as valuable as other kinds of economic success.

While there's an inherent acceptance that higher education is worthwhile, many see a disconnect between its value and its cost. How do we better communicate to government representatives and the public the value proposition of higher education? Value has many definitions. If people are going to value something, one of the things they need to understand is how that particular program, service, or institution affects their own lives. Every politician gets elected to office because he or she effectively makes the case that "I will change your life. I will improve your life." And, that's the same case that higher education institutions must make for why they're essential. They have to be better in showing how they are integrated into the community around them, how they are essential to the community's success, and how that success provides a trickle-down effect that eventually affects people who may not yet have access to higher education. People need to see the interconnection among all of these things. And, I don't know if higher education institutions are pointing enough to those close linkages in a way that more easily makes the case for their value.

I think, for example, about the issues of diversity. As our country becomes more brown and less whiteÑand as we fast approach the date when the census tells us there is, in fact, a majority minority cultureÑuniversities should be on the forefront of figuring out how to make that fact part of what's essential about our country and what's valuable about us. It's an area in which universities should be setting the pace. Yet, we don't seem to take it much past debates about affirmative action and rote discussions about diversity and integration.

How can colleges and universities nurture a diverse group of future leaders?
I'll start by saying that I went to a women's college. One of the most valuable things I found there was that we automatically were given access to leadership. It was always presumed that women would be leaders; and, years later, the women I know who went to school with me or went to other women's colleges have that expectation kind of inculcated in them. It became a natural thing. That's something that you can do on different levels at other universitiesÑprovide leadership opportunities to as many people as you can and broaden the understanding of what a leader is, looks like, and can achieve. You can make a point to search out those kinds of people who can step up to leadership responsibilities. It seems to me, that's where the key is. I know a lot of universities already do that in the admissions process, trying to give added weight to people who have leadership qualities as well as academic excellence.

What role can higher education play in mitigating inequities based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth, given the circumstances of today's society? Well, that's a big one. It's a money-where-your-mouth-is issue. It's one thing to present a seminar that focuses on the advantages of an environment filled with people from varying backgrounds who hold different positions. While that's an important thing to do, it's another thing to act on that idea and to actually set an example, with the university itself becoming a living laboratory for what this can accomplishÑnot just because you filled in all the suggested dots, but because you've shown the value of the diversity by bringing an added worldview to the discussion. This doesn't mean simply including a black person in the room. Rather, you have people representing many different backgrounds and experiences. You have diversity of thought and opinion, as well as skin color and gender. And, to the extent that universities are petri dishes for that sort of discussion, that sort of mix, that's the opportunity institutions must live up to. It's essential.

When you have the chance to moderate a political debate, you're taking part in history. In what way do you view that responsibility and how do you prepare for the role?
I focus on learning as much as I possibly can. On the one hand, I burrow down in a very narrow way on the individuals involved. I find out what they've said and what they need to be held responsible for in terms of actions they've taken and what bills they've supported, signed, and voted for. Then, with that in mind, I try to formulate the questions in a way that the answers will speak to people's lives and candidates will tell people something they may not have known before.

I see my role as a debate moderator as one in which I provide people at home with the opportunity to say, "Okay, this is something I thought I knew, but I now see that I didn't know as much as I thought. What does that tell me about this candidate? How will that inform me about what kind of president, city council supervisor, mayor, or senator this person will be?" It's not a question of chasing candidates around a table questioning them on small issues or of trying to expose some details about them or play "gotcha." I am the intermediary for the public, to help them know what they might not have known, in a way that will help them make an informed choice.

Obviously, you experienced the presidential election up close and saw history unfolding right before your eyes. As an African-American woman, how did you feel when Barack Obama was elected the first black president? I have to say, I wasn't as emotional as you might think. While I was probably watching this more closely than a lot of people were, I've spent so many years trying to look at every side of an issue that I was able to get less caught up in the outcome. Certainly, I took note of the history. And, I was conscious of the fact that, if my parents had been alive, they would have been pleased. But this is hardly the first time I've seen a black candidate get elected to office. While I wasn't shouting, "Yippee," I took note of the moment and I wanted to make sure that it didn't pass without me appreciating it. Then I got back to work.

Hear Ifill

Gwen Ifill will speak at the NACUBO 2009 Annual Meeting in the opening general session, Sunday, June 28, 8:30 a.m.-10:00 a.m.

The debate that you moderated was later spoofed on Saturday Night Live. What is it like to be so high-profile that you see yourself satirized on a popular comedy show? Well, it is definitely funny. Queen Latifah also played me four years ago after I moderated the Cheney and Edwards debate. So, it wasn't the first time I'd seen that. I thought it was a hoot, obviously. Who's not going to like being played by a movie star?

JEFFREY N. SHIELDS is senior vice president and chief planning officer for NACUBO.