On March 19, President Urgo sent out an all-student email informing the student body that Roberto Ifill would be replacing Former Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Laura Bayless as Interim Dean of Students for the 2012-2013 academic year. Dean Ifill has been a visiting Professor of economics at the college since 2008 and has been involved in higher education for over twenty years.
Dean Ifill officially began his position on July 1 and has already made several changes, such as reviving the Dean’s Advisory Council and arranging the first ever Opening Ceremonies for the college. “I’ve enjoyed working with student leadership…we’re developing a good working relationship that is going to probably be enhanced,” said Ifill. “I want to amplify student voice–not to speak for students, on behalf of students, or represent students, but to really allow students to represent themselves more effectively.”
“The way I kind of came in, by mutual agreement with Dr. Urgo, is just to say, no I’m not a candidate for the position,” he said in regard to his time as Interim Dean. “It will still give the college plenty of time to do a couple things. One is really figure out who we need for this position and secondly get the division itself, student affairs, to really look at itself and say ‘okay, what do we want to be, how do we really want to proceed?’ A lot of what my job is, is really to facilitate that process and the other part I’ve been saying from the beginning is that I see myself as a connector, a bridge connecting student affairs to the rest of the campus community.”
Ifill is unsure if he will continue to teach economics classes at the college after he leaves his position as Interim Dean. “I’m really concentrating on this year, this time, getting not only to learn the job but really kind of inject what I can to be helpful…”I’m busy enough that I don’t actually speculate very much about what my future holds.” He will, however, be teaching a senior seminar next semester on the topic of the economics of higher education. “I have a lot of things I think I’d like to do at this college [that includes] teaching,” he said.
After earning his AB at Dartmouth College and his Ph.D. in Economics from Yale University, Ifill worked at several different institutions in a variety of roles before his time at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He taught economics, served as an Assistant Dean, and in his last year, Dean of First Year Students at Williams College. He then worked as a grants officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he first heard about St. Mary’s. The president of the college was helping to shape the direction of institution into what it is today and he gave Ifill a presentation that he said, “blew me away. I was so impressed that I said, ‘I gotta see this place.’” He visited just before St. Mary’s received its honors designation in 1992 and he was “very impressed with what [President Lewis] was able to do in a very brief period of time.”
He then worked at Connecticut College in a hybrid job in the Dean’s office doing strategic planning and teaching economics. Next he then moved to Macalester College where he was hired as an administrator, working assistant to the President in Multicultural Affairs. He came to DC to serve on the American Council on Education and then to St. Mary’s four years ago.
His time during his undergraduate education particularly influenced him in his role as Interim Dean of Students. “I must say that for many of us students [at Dartmouth College], for all of that richness and ability to learn, I don’t think we quite got it…I’ve found that in a couple of other places I’ve worked too, where you had extraordinarily bright students who were very committed to doing well in their course, there was a disconnect between the work they were doing in the classroom and what they were doing outside.” However, he has noticed that St. Mary’s students have a different view of education. “I think there is an understanding in the student body of what a liberal education is really about. It’s about connecting.”
Dean Ifill grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal church, where his father was a minister. The church liked to move its ministers to different congregations every four or five years, so he lived in a number of places growing up. He said, “Because my father was an honest minister, we were not very well-to-do, so we spent a good part of my childhood in the hood and the projects.”
Despite the struggles of growing up in low-income areas, Ifill and his siblings all graduated from college. “The ethic in my household is very strongly about education, about ambition…We were all encouraged to be the best you can be, that there are no boundaries, that whatever people may say about you because of your race or your income, what’s important is what is inside of you.”
Music has also continued to be a positive influence in Ifill’s life. He has been singing since he was five years old and this talent has been crucially important in the last few years. He currently sings in a DC ensemble called Cantate Chamber Singers, among others in the area. “The director of that group, I find probably the best choral conductor I’ve ever worked with. I am so much a fan of hers I ended up marrying her, so as you might imagine, choral music is very important to me,” he said.
He has sung a variety of vocal parts and genres providing him with much insight into different ranges and aspects of music. “I’ve sung all kinds of pieces from basically the 14th century to the 21st, from classical to doo-wop to even trying my hand at a few choral arrangements of my own…It’s kind of interesting being inside the music you’ve helped to create.”
Ifill was inspired to teach economics by a high school economics teacher who invigorated the topic and got the class very excited about it. He has always been driven by an image of excellence and he strives to be that for his students. “There are two kinds of role models I’ve had: there are ones that I’ve aspired to become…but I had another kind of role model too. I had some really bad professors and they’re the ones that have actually motivated me about how to put myself out there in a classroom.”
“Typically when someone asks what I do and I say that I’m an economics professor, they give me this long, slow nod like, ‘worst semester I’ve ever had,’” he said. “It’s one of those things where I feel good that the students I’ve had kind of remember me fondly, particularly because, as they’ll tell you, I’m probably not the easiest professor. I don’t make it a torture session, it’s just that I care a lot about what I’m doing…I appreciate that my students appreciate that and continue to appreciate me in this new role.”
The St. Mary’s community has embraced and encouraged Interim Dean Ifill in his job so far. “I’ve gotten a lot of assistance and support from the staff…[it’s] another one of those pleasant surprises…they’ve reached out and helped me learn the tremendous amount of information you have to have and also helped, me sort of, navigate all of that so I can make judgments,” he said. “This is a very warm and inviting community…what I see most often are people engaging and folks finding friendships in unlikely places. This is a campus that doesn’t seem to have barriers. It is open. People can connect openly, and I’d like to encourage that.”
One of the most important things Dean Ifill would like to explore during his time as Interim Dean of Student Affairs is diversity and how to make it thrive and integrate it into being an active part of campus life. He said, “For me, diversity is just a number. The question is what you do with it, how do you use it as a resource and how do you institutionalize it? When I think of multiculturalism or pluralism, that’s really diversity in action, it’s what we say in our charter: ‘thriving on diversity.’”
“I’m interested in seeing how this college can continue to make progress. [The college has] some tremendous people leading…they are extraordinary people and I’ve been privileged to be working with them.”