As one of the Nation's longest-serving media education deans, Dr. Wilbert Norton ’63 has received numerous awards and has helped launch more successful careers than he can count. The fruit of his labor, at least in part, continues to grow on other people’s trees. That fruit includes multiple former students winning Pulitzer Prizes and journalists working at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other media outlets. His work also extends across the globe, as over the years he has developed partnerships with institutions from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Pristina, Kosovo, among others.
Will has served as dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi since 2009. Norton considers his work a calling with unique opportunities to effect change and influence students. Prior to his work at Ole Miss, he was dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from 1990 to 2009.
At the highest levels in journal-ism academia, Norton has an accomplished career. He served as president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) from 2000 to 2001 and as president of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication from 1989 to 1990. In 2005, the Scripps Howard Foundation named Dr. Norton Journalism Administrator of the Year. He serves as a trustee of the Freedom Forum, the Diversity Institute, and the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Despite all of his personal achievements and those of his protégés, he remains humble and grounded.
“What is fascinating is to see students develop and become more talented and more knowledgeable than their teachers. It is what keeps me full of hope,” says Will. “These students have made a huge difference in my life, helping me to grow and become a more effective professional.”
When people try to call him “Doctor,” he can be quick to respond, “I’m Will, by the way. I don’t take out kidneys.” His wit and sense of humor can be disarming. He is also quick to point to the true source of his success: “God does everything. We just get to participate,” says Norton, quoting Wheaton's Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Theology Dr. Daniel Treier.
Will gives significant credit to his Wheaton experience, calling it the toughest place he ever went to school, including obtaining a master’s degree in mass communication at Indiana University and a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. He studied history at Wheaton and worked as a sports publicist for the Athletics Department. Two memories still stand out from the rest. The first was Wheaton football’s victory over Northern Illinois University, after coming back from a 2-0 deficit late in the game, representing a major upset. The other was a grueling loss to Wabash College, in what amounted to a five-quarter game due to a timekeeper’s error. “I will never forget a quiet Coach Jack Swartz ’52 with head bowed and tears running down his cheeks, standing outside the locker room while his team showered and dressed,” says Will.
Most of his work in the field of journalism has been spent equipping the next generation, but Will began as a practitioner working for The Daily Journal in Wheaton and at the Chicago Tribune. His favorite interviews included African American church leaders Rev. John Perkins hon and the Rev. Bill Pannell.
“Both taught me a great deal about the Civil Rights movement and the major writers on racial equality, justice, and equity,” says Will. “The two of them have an incredibly well-integrated orthodox theology in terms of culture and society.”
After working as a reporter, he transitioned into teaching and later served as a dean. According to Will, five professions are vital in most communities: the ministry, law, teaching, medicine, and journalism. “With the exception of journalism, these professions tend to have the same percentage of believers as our society does,” he says. “However, journalism seems to be a more secular profession than our society.”
Will is a staunch advocate for training Christians to work in media. He also notes the importance of maintaining a free and open press for society to function properly.
“Americans seem to criticize the press when it reports what they do not agree with or what they do not believe are facts,” says Will. “They think it is a terrible world with the media we have, but they have avoided preparing media professionals for that world. Moreover, many Americans do not seem to realize what it is to be in a world where communication is censored. It is a stifling existence.”
Having taught in Wheaton’s former graduate communications program, Will sees Wheaton’s mission of equipping students to enter into diverse professions for Christ and his kingdom as vital.
“There wasn’t a single student in that classroom that wasn’t better than any of my other students, and I’ve taught Pulitzer Prize winners,” says Dr. Norton. He is hopeful that Wheaton’s current Journalism Certificate Program will launch more believers into the media landscape and sees their work as equally important to the work of those entering the mission field or other vocational ministries.
Born in the Belgian Congo as a missionary kid, Will is the eldest son of former Wheaton College Graduate School Dean Dr. H. Wilbert Norton ’36 and is married to Susan with two grown children. His life and career can be summed up in one of his favorite verses: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Cor. 2:14, NIV). His father used to write the reference at the bottom of his letters to Will.
“Through the years, I have realized that whatever good we are able to engender in our society is the result of the Lord working through us,” says Will.