Dr. J. Michael Durnil ’83, M.S. ’84, was surprised by the response to The E.W. Scripps Company announcing he would serve as the executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee last spring. He was soon interviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on National Public Radio.

He also heard from a former high school English teacher, Shirley Schawitsch Kistler ’65, who remembered Durnil as a student in his hometown of Decatur. “She contacted me and asked ‘Are you sure?’” Durnil said with his infectious laugh. Realizing the irony of his current role given he is dyslexic, he was far from offended. 

The opportunity to lead the iconic bee that has been promoting literacy since 1925 has Durnil reflecting on the wonder of his journey. “I’ve had a combination of good fortune and dumb luck,” he said in recalling career opportunities that have placed him at the forefront of national issues and turned him into a trailblazer. 

Appears In

From decades of bringing change within higher education to serving as a leader of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) organization and empowering teens through the Simon Youth Foundation, Durnil has exemplified what he embraced while at ISU—the power of holistic development.

“I realized while at Illinois State that education is not just the curriculum but the whole student development including student activities and student life,” Durnil said. That truth has been a driving force throughout his career. 

J. Michael Durnil was active in Student Affairs at ISU. He served on the 1982 summer Preview guide team, last row, second from left, and became Reggie as part of west campus orientation and welcome back activities in the fall of that same year.

“The common thread to all I have done is being able to see that I can effect change. I have used all of my education and background to bring positive change,” Durnil said, admitting he often marvels at his professional path in part because his father did not advance beyond eighth grade and his mother’s formal education ended with high school.

Illinois State was a logical choice given his older sibling attended. Mary Durnil graduated in 1976 with a degree in elementary education. Michael, a scholarship recipient, opted for the sciences and envisioned teaching biology. He enrolled expecting to pursue his love for theatre as well, but that idea faded as he realized a very talented pool of students were also attending ISU at the time.

They included Gary Sinese, Laurie Metcalf, Jane Lynch, and John Malkovich—all of whom went on to stellar Hollywood and Broadway careers. Durnil instead became involved in Student Affairs activities ranging from student government and residential life to Admissions work.

He became an undergraduate resident assistant and served as class president his senior year. He was a Preview guide and later joined the summer orientation program’s administrative team as a graduate assistant. Deciding to change direction while student teaching, Durnil enrolled in a College of Education graduate program and studied administration with the idea of becoming a principal. He finished in 11 months so that he could keep his job as director of Hamilton-Whitten residence halls, which required a master’s degree. 

Durnil was mentored by Floyd Hoelting, who then served as the office’s director. “He emphasized to always be ready for the next opportunity,” said Durnil, who embraced that message as he joined the residential life team at St. Mary’s University of San Antonio, Texas. It cemented his love for academia and led to a career of nearly three decades in higher education. 

After seven years at Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago, Durnil joined Roosevelt University in the city as the dean of students. That was in 1993. By the time of his departure 15 years later, he had served as senior student affairs officer, worked directly with the president and governing board, and been president of the university’s suburban campus in Schaumburg. 

“Initiatives I started at Elmhurst and Roosevelt are still in place today,” said Durnil, who completed a doctorate in educational leadership and policy at Loyola University. He authored a dissertation titled “More Than Red Ribbons: Student Affairs Professionals Who Advocate for HIV/AIDS Issues in Higher Education.” The research complemented his leadership roles in tackling the topic.

“As we recognize each individual’s uniqueness, sometimes we forget to celebrate how we are the same and how that can be the point of power.”

Dr. J. Michael Durnil

He received a grant in the early 1990s to develop a national model for HIV/AIDS peer education. He chaired the first American Red Cross Mid-American Chapter HIV/AIDS leadership team in Chicago and co-authored a publication on HIV Post-Secondary Education for the Illinois Consortium. The work strengthened his conviction to fight for social justice and seek positions where he could impact decisions as well as policy. 

Durnil further prepared for such challenges by completing a post-doctorate certificate in educational management at Harvard University. He serves as a Fellow of the American Council on Education and completed a year of residency at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. While there he was mentored by the university president, Dr. J. Michael Adams ’69, a nationally respected educator now deceased. 

Durnil embraced his identity as a gay man while at Roosevelt University and became increasingly engaged in the LGBTQ movement as he partnered with the president to advance social justice efforts at the private school. His successes included assisting with the logistics of the Gay Games VII, which attracted more than 14,000 to Chicago from around the world in 2006. 

His advocacy work multiplied exponentially when he was recruited in 2008 to become senior vice president of GLAAD at a time when being gay was a punchline. “I felt a sense of responsibility to give back to the community,” said Durnil, who moved to Los Angeles to help strengthen GLAAD as a national media advocacy and anti-defamation organization. At the time, the fight to ban same-sex marriage through passage of Proposition 8 was escalating throughout California.

Durnil, standing in center, joined in a 2008 Pride Parade in Los Angeles, California. He was an administrator with GLAAD at the time.

A lifetime of cultural advocacy served him well as he implemented a strategic plan and once again led with a positive intent. “I am an eternal optimist and have an unexhausted sense of hope,” said Durnil, who is quick to focus on similarities to bridge differences. “As we recognize each individual’s uniqueness, sometimes we forget to celebrate how we are the same and how that can be the point of power.”

Believing the goal of diversity and inclusion is to move beyond tolerance to acceptance and engagement, Durnil helped GLAAD transition to new leadership before tackling another educational endeavor as CEO of the Simon Youth Foundation in 2010. Based in Indianapolis, the nonprofit organization establishes alternative schools in unused mall space to give high school dropouts the opportunity to earn a diploma.

There were nearly 15,000 graduates in the 11 years Durnil led the foundation, and the number of schools jumped from 19 to 46 across 15 states. The graduation rate of almost 95 percent was reason to celebrate, given students who enrolled were often 17 or older and would barely qualify to be a freshman in the traditional school system. They complete the program in 12 to 16 months and leave with the ability to open doors for a better tomorrow. 

“Access to education is still a huge issue. Education is the pathway to a better life,” Durnil said. “I enjoyed every minute of the work.” He was lured away by the The E. W. Scripps Company and the opportunity to lead the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which involves approximately 11 million school-age children annually.

The move from nonprofits into a corporate setting of a huge media organization has been another opportunity for growth. In addition to overseeing the bee, Durnil works with schools across the country and advances literacy initiatives undertaken year-round. He co-chairs an employee LGBTQ resource group and is once again on stage in the theatre community of Cincinnati, where he resides with his husband, Lynn Burnside Smith II. 

There is a sense of contentment and gratitude as Durnil shares his enthusiasm for his current role and the work of lifting up young people in yet another venue. Instead of mentioning his long list of accolades that range from Congressional recognition to induction into ISU’s College of Education Hall of Fame, he focuses on the blessing of empowering others throughout his career. 

He also readily credits the University for the foundation upon which he has built a successful life throughout which he has empowered others. “I honestly feel like I live the mission of Illinois State University,” Durnil said. “I gladly learn and gladly teach.”

Spelling Success

Alumnus Dr. J. Michael Durnil is entrusted to continue a national legacy as executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is the longest-running educational competition in the country.

Zaila Avant-garde, 14, is the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She took the title in 2021. (Photo by Heather Harvey, Scripps National Spelling Bee)

Started in 1925 with nine spellers, the bee now attracts millions of students across the U.S. and internationally. Only approximately 200 advance to the finals. Participants cannot be older than 14 or past the eighth grade, and previous winners are ineligible. All competitors start studying and competing locally many months prior to the national championship rounds, which will be held during Bee Week activities May 29-June 3 in Washington, D.C. 

The semifinals and finals on June 1 and 2 will be hosted by actor, director, and educator LeVar Burton. They will be televised on ION and Bounce networks. The change from ESPN will make the bee available for free to nearly 120 million households. 

Durnil looks forward to watching the winner emerge and will be as surprised as viewers by what words are used. “I could look at the word list in advance, but I don’t want to,” he said, in part to maintain the high integrity of the competition that is created in partnership with Merriam-Webster. 

“Students really are competing with the dictionary,” Durnil said, explaining that an algorithmic formula is used to know how many words will be needed for the final rounds. Competitors have access to a Words of Champions study guide containing 4,000 words and other resources as they prepare.

Durnil with the Scripps Cup, a custom-designed trophy that includes highlights of the spelling bee’s history dating back to 1925.

One motivation to do so is the $50,000 cash prize awarded to the national champion, who also receives a commemorative medal and the Scripps Cup trophy. Merriam-Webster gives an additional $2,500 and a reference library to the winner.

There are equally significant intangible awards for all involved, as conveyed in the bee’s mission statement: “Our purpose is to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.”

“Each student learns so much. You can see the evolution of their social skills, how they process both success and failure, and how they connect with each other. They are an example of grace under pressure,” said Durnil, who has also noticed another commonality. “Everybody remembers the word that took them out of the bee.”