Former Dean of Students Michael Gordon remembered as mentor, trailblazer


Former Dean of Students Michael Gordon glances over beer kegs confiscated at the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity house during the first campus alcohol raid. Arbutus File Photo Buy Photos

Former Dean of Students Michael Gordon, who was one of the first black men to hold a high administrative position at IU and whose strict policies toward student drinking earned him a reputation as a campus enforcer, died Jan. 7 in Tallahassee, Florida. He was 82. 

His daughter Maura Lynn Byrd said her father had heart problems for years and underwent open heart surgery in November. She said he died peacefully and will be buried at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bloomington to be close to IU. 

Gordon served as dean of students from 1981 to 1991 and was a professor of music in the Jacobs School of Music from 1975 to 2001. 

Though he played many roles in life as an administrator, teacher, mentor and minister, Gordon began his career as a performer, and friends said he brought that love of performance to much of his work.

“Wherever Michael was, there was music,” said James Mumford, a friend of Gordon’s and a retired IU professor. 

As dean of students, Gordon kept a piano in his office. Mumford said Gordon would often sing with music students who visited him. 

He was known for once starting off a budget meeting singing “I got plenty of nothing,” the first line of a song from the opera “Porgy and Bess.” Ken Gros Louis, then Vice President of IU, asked Gordon to sing the next line, which was “and nothing is plenty for me.”

Former Dean of Students Michael Gordon sits in his office in 1984. Gordon had a piano in his office, seen in the lower lefthand corner, that he was known for playing. Arbutus File Photo Buy Photos

Gordon received his bachelor’s degree from Virginia State University in vocal music and his Ph.D. in music and music education from Columbia University. He worked as an administrator and music educator in New York City public schools and performed regularly with chamber music groups in the city. 

Charles Sykes, who took classes under Gordon as a graduate and doctoral student in the 70s, said Gordon engaged with students by telling stories and asking them questions. He said Gordon wanted to know what his students thought about what they were learning.

“It’s not about him,” Sykes said. “It’s about you.”

When Gordon became dean in 1981, Sykes, now executive director of the African American Arts Institute, said Gordon helped African American and minority students in general feel like they had a voice at the upper level of the university.

Gordon was a trailblazer, said Michelle Walker, who worked in IU Vice President Ken Gros Louis’ office when Gordon was dean. 

“Can you imagine the kind of guts it would take to be asked to be the first administrator who is a person of color?” Walker said.

At IU, Gordon served as an executive director of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which is made up of historically black fraternities and sororities. He also helped to create the first permanent national headquarters for the organization at IU. 

During Gordon's time as dean, the Student Advocates Office was created and he was one of the first co-chairs on the Commission on Personal Safety, said Dick McKaig, who was an associate dean of students while Gordon was dean.

But Gordon could also be controversial. He became famous at IU for cracking down on student drinking. McKaig said he remembered going with Gordon to shut down fraternity parties where there was underage drinking.

On his first search of greek houses and residence halls, Gordon confiscated 19 kegs, one pony keg, five gallons of vodka and two cases of beer, according to a 1983 edition of the Arbutus. 

“Some might have thought he was a prohibitionist, or some might have thought he was a man who relished enforcing rules,” McKaig said. “I really think it was more his concern for people not making the most of their college experience.”

Former Dean of Students Michael Gordon died Jan. 7. He was 82 years old. He was dean of students from 1981 to 1991, when he stepped down, and was a professor until 2001.  Arbutus File Photo Buy Photos

Jason DeSousa, who first met Gordon in 1988 at a Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity convention, of which they were both members, said Gordon made him a graduate assistant on the spot. DeSousa worked with Gordon in the dean of students office for three years. 

Gordon became a father figure to him, DeSousa said. He said Gordon was a great listener who would talk with anyone about any issue without judgement. DeSousa said he always seemed to have a solid answer to issues students were facing.  

DeSousa said it was not uncommon for students to shout out to Gordon to say hello as he walked across campus between meetings. 

“It seemed as though Michael knew every last one of those students’ names,” DeSousa said. 

After he retired in 2001, Gordon moved to Accra, Ghana, for a few years. There he studied to become a minister and worked as a choir director. Gordon came back to live in Wake Forest, North Carolina, after he had a heart attack.  

His daughter Maura Lynn Byrd said he moved to Tallahassee, Florida, in July so she could help him with his health issues. Gordon was born in Tallahassee, and Byrd said he loved the idea of returning to the place he came from. 

“My father was an amazing man and a loving father,” Byrd said. “He truly exhibited unconditional love and support for me and my older sister.”

Gordon is survived by his ex-wife Clara Thurman Gordon, two daughters Maya Claire Todd and Maura Lynn Byrd, his brothers Robert Gordon and George Gordon, his sister Sarah Gordon Weathersby and his grandchildren Madeleine Byrd, Miles Byrd Jr. and Howard Milton Todd Jr. 

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