Roanoke College

Endowed Chairs

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  • Endowed Chairs

  • 12/10/09
  • Like many professors today, Dr. Jack K. Steehler is in an interesting position. He teaches Roanoke College students through opportunities in scientific research, but after 21 years on campus, Steehler says it is ever more challenging.

    "In my field, one third of everything I teach came into existence after I got my Ph.D., so being currently involved in scholarship allows me to continue my own education," he says. "Then, those things become part of what I teach, which means the education your student gets is up to date."

    Steehler always had that philosophy, but since last summer he's been doing it as the Brian H. Thornhill Professor of Chemistry- now one of the College's record-setting eight endowed professorships. Yet, with such honor comes great responsibility. The endowed professorships allow the faculty more time for research, writing and contemplation of future projects, but in return, the professors are expected to produce. Students benefit directly from various opportunities given the professors, and the College views its "endowed chairs" as a way of attracting the best professors in the field and retaining those already teaching on campus.

    Endowed chairs have five centuries of history behind them, having been established in England in the early 16th century. At Roanoke, an endowed chair could provide the recipient with additional salary, a reduced teaching load and an expense account to help support projects and research.

    For students, the most valuable opportunity is actual experience in research, particularly in the sciences, says Steehler, who also serves as the College's director of student-faculty research. For most years he has had two or three students working with him on research, and the five-year term with the Thornhill endowment features that and helps support summer projects, as well.

    Dr. Jane C. Long, who is the newly appointed Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo Professor in Art History, says when that chair was established it enabled Roanoke College to offer an art history major beginning in 2005.

    "Immediately, students were declaring this major, and we have kept up the numbers," Long says. "It is extraordinarily exciting and extremely good for the College because Roanoke, a small liberal arts college, should have an art history major and have its students studying art history in a serious way."

    In Long's case, it was Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo '78 who created an endowed chair for just that reason: She was inspired by an art history course she took during spring semester in her senior year and wanted to extend the experience to future students. The course awakened in her what became the passion of her life, and Cassullo continued her education and dedicated her life to the contemporary art world, particularly in New York City as an advocate for artists, the Whitney Museum of American Art and art education. "I wanted to create something that would have a lasting impact on students' lives at Roanoke College. Now, students sharing a similar passion with mine - in art history - are able to major in it for the first time," she says.

    Building academic program and prestige
    Charlotte Parks, vice president of resource development, says the endowed professorships strengthen the College's academic program, give prestige to the professors and help with recruitment. George Seals '70, director of major and planned gifts, says endowed chairs are meant to help professors and students. Donors who give them do so because they love Roanoke College, he says, and they feel that this will help students get the same education they received. And the more professorships Roanoke College garners, the better its academic standing.

    "We've been very fortunate; we've just established an eighth, with others coming on line," Seals says. "We feel we have a lot of momentum going forward to establish more." That shows approval from donors and the direction the College is moving. In funding two endowed professorships, Charles and Helen Schumann not only have recognized the work of Roanoke College but are hoping to strengthen relations between it and the Lutheran Church. One of their endowed chairs is in Lutheran theology and the other in Christian ethics.

    "Hopefully, Roanoke College will be a leader not just in the Roanoke Valley and the Commonwealth of Virginia but well beyond through graduating students with a more positive outlook in the world," Charles Schumann says. "We just have to wait and see. All I can do is give a little money to help get this thing going." While the College describes itself as "Classic for Tomorrow," the Schumanns take an even longer view and envision the community's benefits through current students and as well as those 20, 30 even 50 years from now. "I won't be around then," he adds with a chuckle, "but just keeping your money isn't any good. There's no pocket in a shroud, and this is important."

    Inspiring professors
    Dr. Ned Wisnefske, who holds the new Schumann Professorship of Lutheran Theology, sees this honor as an opportunity to help renew Lutheran thought and to draw college students and reflective adults into it. "The Schumanns have put aside the fruits of their labors so that the Lutheran tradition is nurtured and communicated. For me, receiving this appointment is accepting a call to find fresh ways to advance Lutheran thought." He is currently working on a book, God Hides: A Critique of Religion and a Primer for Faith. Wisnefske says this chair gives him the chance to challenge ways Americans typically view religion. In addition, he wants to locate common ground where students' religious and moral ideas intersect with Lutheran thought. "It is not effective to advocate one particular perspective. A teacher should point and show, but students have to make the intellectual moves - wherever that leads them - on their own."

    Fellow religion professor Dr. Gerald McDermott holds the Jordan-Trexler Professorship of Religion and says he's thrilled because "I have been writing a lot over the years, and I really appreciate the extra time and space this chair gives me to continue to keep up my pace of publications." McDermott has published 11 books over a span of 19 years and brought out his latest book at the end of 2008. In addition, he edited the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, which will come out in 2010.

    "This [project] gave me the opportunity to interact with the best evangelical theologians in the world," McDermott says. "And, I'm getting started on another 500-600 page book, which I plan to co-write with another scholar. Having an endowed chair with a reduced teaching load helps me tremendously. We spend so much time on teaching-related work that sometimes it's difficult to carve out the time to write."

    Of course, students also learn from faculty sharing their experiences in the world of public discourse, and the publications themselves can contribute to the College's public profile, McDermott says.

    Dr. Robert D. Schultz knows all about that. The College's John P. Fishwick Professor of English is seeing his fourth book published this year. This one, co-written with nontraditional Roanoke student James Shell, is a military history and biography called We were Pirates: A Torpedoman's Pacific War. In addition, Schultz, who has been at the College just since 2004, is active in the community and even serves on the education committee at the new Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke.

    The endowed chair has made a "huge difference," he says. "One of the surprises has been the opportunity to develop connections in a new city - particularly the chance to work with the Taubman Museum as a venue for art, literature and education."

    At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. C. William Hill, the Henry H. and Trudye Fowler Professor of Public Affairs, who is retiring this spring after 40 years with the College. He enjoyed seeing the publication of his recently co-authored book, The Liberal Republicanism of John Taylor of Caroline. After retirement, Hill will continue as director of the Henry H. Fowler Program, which arranges impressive campus speakers, and teaching part time in the College's new general curriculum. "One of the biggest delights was getting to know Mr. Fowler," Hill says. "In all my work with the program, I tried to do things like he would have wanted done."

    Dr. Robert Denham, who retired in 2004 from the Fishwick professorship of English, still praises the endowed chair for helping him research and write. The program reduced his teaching load and provided professional travel and research funds. He was mainly editing the unpublished works of literary critic Northrop Frye; Denham's 15 years of work on this project resulted in 11 of the 29 volumes in The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Occasionally, Denham heard that scholarly research belongs at a university and not at a liberal arts college devoted to teaching - but he strongly disagrees.

    "My own research and writing always fed into my teaching," he says. "I think I never emerged from a class without my own scholarly passions having entered into my dialogue with students."

    Keeping focus on students
    One of the new endowed professorships is held by Dr. Garry Fleming, the John S. Shannon Professor of Economics. He sees the honor as an opportunity to rededicate himself to scholarly activities, including more research and writing. Still, he is a teacher first and defines himself as such. "I've always felt this was my calling and the reason I'm at a small liberal arts college," Fleming says, "but research increases your ability to see what needs to be brought to the classroom." As a result, he plans to retool some of his classes with the benefit of this extra time that the chair is affording him.

    Student interest in economics has been growing with a minor in the subject added three years ago and a significant increase in the number of majors. John "Jack" Shannon '52 had that in mind when he created the chair in economics. "Endowed professorships can help attract and retain a strong faculty, which is critically important for a college," Shannon says. "At the time I did this, the nation hadn't seen such a financial meltdown since the Depression. Now, it's particularly rewarding to be able to further enhance faculty development in economics while also building student interest in the field."

    Endowed chairs represent an investment in the College and give faculty members a chance to highlight the work they are doing with students, in research and in publishing. Dr. M Paul Capp '52 and his wife, Constance Whitehead, are funding an endowed professorship in physics with a planned gift. They hope other alumni will be inspired and want to create even more endowed chairs. "I don't know of a better way to achieve high quality faculty than high quality professorships," he says. Capp attended Roanoke on two sports scholarships and was so inspired after graduation he turned down a professional baseball scholarship to continue his education at Duke University and then University of North Carolina. The resulting medical career led him to professor and chair of the radiology department at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Now semi-retired, Capp is a Roanoke College trustee and chair of the College's Society of 1842. Professorships "are only given to the best," he says, "so they provide stability to the faculty and obvious financial support to the entire school."

    In 2002, the Rev. J. Marshall Tise Professorship of Lutheran Studies was created by three sisters, who were alumni wanting to honor their father while providing significant support for the College.

    "It has been extremely powerful," says Kathryn Buchanan, assistant to the president for church relations. "It helps tell the world that we believe in our heritage and that we want our students to get a well-rounded education from the best professors in their field. The Tise Professor is but one example."

    Dr. Michael Hakkenberg, interim vice president and academic dean, praises the various faculty and their supporters.

    "These professorships allow us to compete in that larger academic world in the way we would not be able to otherwise," he explains. Doing research helps professors keep their teaching fresh, and the endowed chairs allow them the extra time to do this. Some chairs, such as the Brian H. Thornhill professorship, are designed to develop mentorships so that students can become involved in research. The Joanne Leonhardt Cassulo chair enabled Roanoke College to hire another faculty position in art history and create a major for the College. Even the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies, the Rev. Dr. Paul Hinlicky, exported the Roanoke College curriculum this spring when he led nine students for a semester in Slovakia.

    Although each professorship is different, all are strengthening opportunities for Roanoke's professors and students. "These are ways to highlight and raise the academic profile of the College," Hakkenberg says, "and it reflects the trust that these donors have in the College."


    Roanoke's record-setting eight endowed professors

    Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo Professor in Art History - Dr. Jane C. Long

    John P. Fishwick Professor of English - Dr. Robert D. Schultz. (Dr. Robert Denham and Dr. William Deegan held the professorship previously.)

    Henry H. and Trudye Fowler Professor of Public Affairs - Dr. Todd C. Peppers

    Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion - Dr. Gerald McDermott (Dr. Robert Benne held this professorship previously.)

    Schumann Professor of Lutheran Theology - Dr. Ned Wisnefske

    John S. Shannon Endowed Professor of Economics - Dr. Garry Fleming

    Brian H. Thornhill Professor of Chemistry - Dr. Jack K. Steehler. (This is the only rotating endowed professorship. It was previously held by Dr. Darwin D. Jorgensen, who still carries the tile, and Dr. Nasser Barghouty.)

    Rev. J. Marshall Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies - The Rev. Dr. Paul Hinlicky