Sherrilyn Ifill, Vassar alumna and the seventh President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), will deliver the 2016 Commencement address at Vassar College on Sunday, May 29, 2016.
“I am delighted that Sherrilyn Ifill accepted our invitation to give this year’s commencement address, “ said Vassar President Catharine Hill. “Her impressive legal career has been built on the urgent civil rights issues of our time, including voting access, policing reform, and urban deprivation. I know that our students , their families, and the entire Vassar community will be enriched by her speech.”
Ifill took the helm of LDF, the nation's premier civil rights legal organization, in 2013. In that time, she has increased the visibility and engagement of the organization in cutting edge and urgent civil rights issues including policing reform, the Detroit water crisis and transportation inequity. At critical moments during national unrest in 2014, Ifill’s voice and vision framed the issue of policing reform and urban deprivation with powerful clarity in media appearances, op-eds and speeches.
The youngest of 10 children, Ifill was raised in New York City and educated in the public schools. She graduated from Vassar College in 1984, and from New York University School of Law in 1987. After graduating law school, Ifill served first as a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union and then for five years as an assistant counsel in LDF’s New York office, where she litigated voting rights cases in the south. During her tenure at LDF, Ifill litigated numerous cases including the landmark Voting Rights Act case Houston Lawyers’ Association vs. Attorney General of Texas, in which the Supreme Court held that judicial elections are covered by the provisions of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In 1993, Ifill left LDF to join the faculty of the University of the Maryland School of Law, where, in addition to teaching Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law and variety of seminars, she continued to litigate and consult on a broad and diverse range of civil rights cases. While at Maryland she developed an environmental justice clinical offering and co-founded one of the first legal clinics in the nation focused on removing legal barriers to formerly incarcerated persons seeking to responsibly re-enter society.
A sought-after speaker and strategist whose counsel is sought by government officials, civic and community leaders and national civil rights colleagues, Ifill is also a critically acclaimed author. Her scholarly articles and her 2007 book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, reflect her lifelong engagement in and analysis of issues of race and American public life.
Ifill is a past Chair of the Board of U.S. Programs at the Open Society Institute, one of the largest philanthropic supporters of civil rights and social justice organizations in the country. She currently serves on the global board of the Open Society Foundations, and on the board of Equal Justice Works, the National Constitution Center and the Learning Policy Institute.
Ifill will be the fifth Vassar graduate to deliver their alma mater’s commencement address, joining the ranks of actresses Meryl Streep and Lisa Kudrow, journalist Chip Reid, and physicist Sau Lan Wu.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.