Driven in her ways
Interim dean of FAMU’s journalism school racks up long list of firsts
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
By the time that Dhyana Ziegler’s mother gave her some advice as a child, she was already showing signs of becoming a trailblazer.
In exactly what wasn’t so clear then, but Ziegler never forgot the words her mother spoke.
“Baby, they can’t take your brains away that God gave you,” she recalled her mother saying.
Ziegler has lived by those words ever since first hearing them more than half a century ago, while growing up in her native New York City. It stands to reason she has achieved a list of firsts, including being the only female in technology featured in the 2007 book: “The Black Digital Elite,” which highlights African American leaders in information technology.
Today she is still the first African-American to be elected president of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Faculty Senate. Ziegler is the only HBCU professor to be knighted, receiving the distinction from the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Justice at Cambridge University.
If she hasn’t revolutionized the world, she has influenced a lot of what has happened in journalism and technology in the last 20 years. Ziegler, whose mother is from Jacksonville and her father from Quincy, has also made her mark as an advocate for civil rights and has been recognized internationally for her work.
One of the other firsts that Ziegler established close to home in Tallahassee is the TV-20 station while assisting the development of the Instructional Technology and Distance Learning Program at FAMU. The television station is now part of the School of Journalism and Graphic Communication and a staple in Comcast’s channel lineup.
Ziegler was recently named interim dean of the FAMU journalism school, replacing Ann Kimbrough, one of three deans removed in a shakeup in May at FAMU. Ziegler came to FAMU 20 years ago as a Garth Reeves Eminent Scholar chair of Excellence in Journalism. Prior to that appointment, she was Professor of Broadcasting at UT-Knoxville, where she’d worked for 14 years.
Ziegler’s lengthy list of accomplishments also includes being named a Genius Laureate in Communications and Technology in 2005, a highly acclaimed book compiled by the American Biographical Institute about geniuses around the world. Ziegler sees her latest promotion as an opportunity to continue impacting young minds.
“I do it for them,” she said. “I open the door.”
Ziegler hopes to use her journalism and digital savvy to inspire FAMU students to make improvements in how news is presented online. The current state of digital journalism is “killing writing,” said Ziegler, who teaches journalism ethics.
“They want to package everything and get it out there quickly,” she said. “It bothers me a lot because they’re not objective. You’re supposed to be objective and deal with accuracy.
“Now it’s leaning toward too much politics. It’s conservative or it’s liberal or they have a slant, or their opinions. The profession used to have the respect (of people) but because of a few (journalists) – not saying all – it’s going in so many directions and influencing minds to the point that you don’t really know what’s truth anymore.”
Those who know her say Ziegler is simply driven by being an innovative visionary.
She received some of her accolades before she earned a doctorate degree in academic administration from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. She focused on her first two loves – music and journalism – when she did undergrad studies at Baruch College, City University of New York.
None of what Ziegler has accomplished surprises her family. Striving for the exceptional is part of their DNA, said Ziegler’s sister, Patricia Guest.
“It’s a gift. It just comes to her,” said Guest, a retired child specialist who lives in Detroit. “She is the type of person who would say, ‘OK, I did that, now what’s next. That’s how her brain ticks. It’s just a creative brain.”
Family and music are a big part of Ziegler’s life. More than anything else she wanted to be a professional musician. While those plans didn’t quite play out, she has made her mark on the music world by writing and producing the 1976 disco hit “Time Moves On” by the band Strutt.
She also co-wrote the life story of her late brother-in-law William Guest in a book titled “Midnight Train From Georgia: A Pip’s Journey.” The book is about Guest’s career as a member of the famous Gladys Knight and the Pips band, and is expected to be adapted into a stage play.
As a musician, Ziegler developed a passion for the guitar and she is currently taking lessons to master the piano.
Ziegler developed something of a knack for writing early, too. Her sister recalls that she didn’t speak much until late in her teenage years, often using notes instead to communicate.
She has won many awards for her writing, including as one of the co-authors of the landmark Jane Pauley Task Force report on mass communication education, published in 1996.
As much as Ziegler has accomplished, it would seem that her achievements would be a hot topic at family gatherings.
Not so, said Guest.
“She never elaborated on things; like some people you may hear say ‘Oh, I did this and I do that,’ ” Guest said. “It didn’t matter to her about that type of stuff.”
That’s about the way it is when Ziegler is in front of her students. She’s simply “down-to- earth and humble,” said Yulita Howard, one of her former students at FAMU.
“Every time I talk to her, I’m laughing so hard. You rarely come into a place where people have that kind of personality and still flourish.
“She truly cares and she shows that a lot,” Howard added. “She is very helpful. She would tell us if this is right or this is why it’s wrong and if I were in that position this is what I would do so that we could see it from a teacher’s perspective.”
Ziegler hedged on saying whether she’d like to be in the running for the permanent position of dean of the FAMU journalism school, saying it would depend on how the leadership of FAMU plays out. Larry Robinson is currently interim president while a search is underway for a permanent leader.
“I can only leave if God tells me to and God hasn’t asked me to leave,” she said. “All of this to me has come full circle. “If it unfolds right at the top, then I will feel comfortable where I am in this place.”