Since the early 1960s, our University has presented Distinguished and Excellence Professorships to exceptional faculty. The impact these professorships make on these stellar individuals creates an exponential impact on their graduate and undergraduate students, on their realm of research, and ultimately on our world.
By Christine Garton and Mike Harris ’93 MA
Photography by Martin W. Kane, Sean Norona ’13, & Bert Vanderveen ’93, ’97 MA
Nineteen years ago, Dr. L. DiAnne Borders ’72 received the Burlington Industries Excellence Professorship. It was a game-changer.
“When Ed Uprichard, our School of Education dean, called to tell me, I thought ‘Wow!’’’ Her research, her teaching, and her department were being lifted up.
When she’d come from Cleveland County to enroll in 1968, the campus had only a few endowed professorships. As our campus moved from the Woman’s College era (1932-63) to the current research university of UNCG – and doctoral programs were becoming key for all universities – several Triad corporations gave us pivotal support through named professorships.
Alumni stepped up. Friends of the University stepped up. Woman’s College classes at their 50th reunions teamed together to endow more professorships to elevate our University.
“It signals to prospective students we will train you well. It allows us the resources to compete with other universities for outstanding faculty. We’ll attract the crème de la crème – and keep them at UNCG.”
Borders is a perfect example. A pastor’s daughter, she lived in various rural North Carolina communities. She graduated in the tumultuous Vietnam War era with an English degree. She gained real-world experience as a high school teacher in High Point. She leveraged that experience to build her academic credentials at other universities. In 1987, she joined UNCG’s burgeoning counseling program and ultimately became a trailblazer nationally not only in the realm of counselor education, but in the creation of standards and ethical codes in the new field of clinical supervision as a specialty within the counseling and mental health fields. She’s been awarded lifetime achievement awards by the leading organizations in her field. An honored mentor to her students and well-published researcher, she has helped bolster UNCG’s Counseling and Educational Development Department for 36 years.
“The program is the only nationally ranked counseling program in North Carolina. Right now we are No. 3 in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report. We’ve been in the top 10 for about three decades, since Dr. Nicholas Vacc was department head.” He was named the Joe Rosenthal Excellence Professor in the late 1990s – proud that it elevated the program’s reputation – and is a namesake of the endowed professorship currently held by Michael Kane in our outstanding Psychology Department.
The impact of UNCG’s endowed professorships is measured not only in the prestige they bring to UNCG, but in generations of graduates who’ve created fulfilling lives and impactful careers as they’ve learned from the leading lights in their fields.
Borders has seen UNCG evolve into a large university with many stellar academic programs and a growing number of these professorships. There’s one constant over the years. “It’s still a champion of helping provide you the education you need to make an impact and to make the world better than before.”
The history of our distinguished professorships originated in the latter years of Woman’s College. In 1957, the first endowed professorship fund was started to create a Mary Frances Stone Chair in Home Economics. Next, the Burlington Industries Chair in Textiles and the Kathleen Price Bryan Professorship in Financial Affairs were created. While none of these endowments proved large enough to support a chair, they did provide for much-needed faculty salary supplements and the hiring of lecturers.
There was an obvious need. And there was growing determination to elevate this campus.
From the end of the WC era to the beginning of the 1980s, annual gifts rose from $263,000 to just over $1 million, according to Allen Trelease’s “Making North Carolina Literate.” Much of that revenue was placed in the Excellence Fund, whose income was used primarily to supplement existing scholarships and faculty research, as well as salaries of outstanding faculty.
In the 1970s, as the needs of a research-intensive university with dozens of doctoral programs were growing even more apparent and state appropriations were not keeping up, University fundraising rose to a higher level. Notably, the Triad’s corporations stepped up, as they saw that a strong UNCG with dynamic academic programs would elevate the region and state. Jefferson-Pilot, NCNB, and Cone Hospital were among the companies that knew a more impactful university with strong graduates would be a win-win for the business community.
By 1978 UNCG had gained seven “Excellence Professorships,” five of which were named for the largest donors: Burlington Industries, NCNB, Jefferson-Pilot, and the Wayne Foundation (the Joe Rosenthal Professorship and Elizabeth Rosenthal Professorship).
Alumni were also key in creating named professorships. In two instances, classes at their 50th reunions took on the challenge of creating one. The Class of 1949 Professorship in the Humanities, originally given to novelist Craig Nova and now held by Dr. Christian Moraru, is one. It specifically honors the heritage and excellent level of teaching of Woman’s College. Another is the Class of 1952 Professorship, established at their 50th reunion to “further enhance and enrich the instructional program in English language and literature.” First held by Dr. Christopher Hodgkins, it is now held by Dr. Risa Applegarth and Dr. Ben Clarke.
Our past comprehensive fundraising campaigns – Prospectus III, the Centennial Campaign, the Second Century Campaign, the Students First Campaign – have had a great impact. As UNCG entered into the Light the Way campaign, it had nearly forty such professorships. The ambitious goal in this current campaign? Double that number, to ignite our University like never before.
Dr. Nadja Cech’s Sullivan Distinguished Professorship directly impacts her biochemistry students, she points out. “With these funds, I’m able to provide opportunities to the undergraduate and graduate students in my laboratory to participate in summer research experiences and to cover our travel to professional conferences. Attending one is often a life-changing experience for a student. For example, Joe Egan, who attended the American Society of Pharmacognosy Conference when he was an undergraduate in my laboratory, told me on the way home, ‘I’ve decided what I’m going to do. I’m going to graduate school!’” A first-generation college student, he earned his PhD and is now running a leading scientific data analysis company, she adds.
Dr. Nicholas Oberlies, who also holds a Sullivan Distinguished Professorship, took his entire lab to the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Pharmacognosy in July using that funding. “The students presented posters about their research projects, and in doing so, had a chance to get feedback from both peers and leaders in the field. We all returned energized to try out new ideas.”
Speaking of new ideas, he added, “It is easy to come up with ideas, but you need to test those ideas if you want to turn them into fundable projects. I use some of the Sullivan funds to pay for the expenses associated with generating preliminary data around new ideas. Basically, we use these funds to leverage new ideas into new, funded projects.”
Dr. Laurie Kennedy-Malone, who holds a Lewis Excellence Professorship in Nursing, explains that it allows her to seek more opportunities for professional leadership and to mentor. Dr. Edna Tan, who holds the Hooks Distinguished Professorship, says the funds make a big difference in the engaged research she and her doctoral assistant lead at a Greensboro STEM program for middle and high school youth.
Dr. Laurie Wideman, whose Safrit-Ennis Distinguished Professorship in Kinesiology was created near the start of the current campaign, says its impact was immediate. “It has allowed me to empower and educate the next generation of scientists by supporting myself and my students to be on the leading edge of scholarship in our field,” she says. “Its greatest value is providing funds for my students to do cutting-edge science, travel to present that science at national and international conferences, and to publish their findings in high quality journals, which have significant costs associated with them. This allows my students to get noticed and secure better job opportunities, and this, along with the publications, increases the recognition and stature of UNCG and the kinesiology graduate program.”
The professors are proud of the strategic philanthropy behind the name. “It’s a way a donor can make a targeted impact – one that will literally ‘help the world be better,’” Borders says.
She points to Dr. Esther Leerkes, with whom she has collaborated, as one example. ”Her years of research in parenting infants is so important. Her Jefferson-Pilot Excellence Professorship creates national impact, as well as impact closer to home.”
Provost Debbie Storrs has a unique perspective on what this does for the University, at large. These professors are nationally recognized figures, sought by other universities. “Each professorship benefits UNCG by helping to attract and retain these top-notch faculty, whose contributions in teaching, research, and public service raise the profile of this University and help it reach its high objectives.”
With each endowed professorship come specifically tailored expectations. A common thread is a high level of professional service at national and international levels. And each will contribute to the continuing development of both junior and senior faculty members and will serve as a mentor and role model to students at all levels.
Their impact is steadily growing.
“The distinguished professors over the decades have taught hundreds of thousands of undergrads and mentored and guided the research of thousands of master’s and doctoral students,” Storrs says. “They are key in staking our flag as a first-choice university with a reputation for academic and research excellence.”
Susan Morris Safran ’77 Distinguished Professorship in Nursing
A health care entrepreneur and nurse who has taught countless American Heart Association Lifesaving courses, Susan Morris Safran ’77 knows firsthand how important it is to have excellent teachers. Now, she is bolstering the already exceptional standard of faculty excellence in UNCG’s School of Nursing.
The Susan Morris Safran Distinguished Professorship in Nursing, the result of a $1 million pledge by Safran, will be dedicated to a professor who will teach, engage in scholarship, and provide community service to improve patient outcomes with focus on the continuum of health care.
Currently co-chair of UNCG’s Light the Way campaign, Safran served on the UNCG Board of Trustees for 10 years and was its chair from 2014 to 2016, when she led the search committee that brought Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. to UNCG. She was also instrumental in promoting and planning UNCG’s Nursing and Instructional Building, and she championed the construction of Union Square Campus. She and her family established the Safran Family Endowed Scholarship as well as two funds in UNCG Nursing. The Susan Morris Safran Scholarship in Nursing so far has been awarded to eight unique students.
“This new professorship is my way of giving back to the faculty who inspired me and to the students who want to be inspired,” she says.
The Ella Fitzgerald Distinguished Professorship in Jazz Studies
A long-standing supporter of UNCG’s Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program, Dr. Ward Robinson Jr. ’10 MPH, ’19 PBC aims to harness the power of collective giving to establish the Ella Fitzgerald Distinguished Professorship in Jazz Studies. His leadership gift serves as a challenge to others to make this long sought-after faculty position in jazz and pop vocals a reality.
One of the top jazz programs in the Southeast, the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program boasts a diverse cohort of students. Through the Ella Fitzgerald Distinguished Professorship, the College of Visual and Performing Arts seeks to increase minority representation among Jazz Studies faculty. Robinson stands shoulder to shoulder with the College’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, which will have far-reaching effects both now and for the future.
“Both the Ella Fitzgerald estate and UNCG are incredibly excited about this new opportunity,” says Professor of Jazz Steve Haines. “Ms. Fitzgerald is an inspiration, with unparalleled musical talent and a massive heart in helping others, which continues today with her charitable foundation. We couldn’t be more grateful to Pam and Ward for their help.”
In addition to providing seed money for this professorship, Robinson and his family have also endowed a scholarship and an enrichment fund in Jazz Studies.
Who currently holds these professorships?