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Seats of Learning

Endowed chairs energize teaching, enhance scholarship

"The gift of an endowed chair has extraordinary power," says Donald Pease, Avalon Foundation Chair of the Humanities, "power that mobilizes the energy of human intelligence. It challenges me to enrich the gift by giving new knowledge back to the true recipients-my students." To that end, Pease has used the platform that the Avalon chair provides to explore national identity, post-national narratives, and the global community through examination of works by such writers as Hawthorne, Emerson, and Whitman.

Donald Pease, George Langford, Deborah Nichols
(L-R) Donald Pease, Avalon Foundation Chair of the Humanities; George Langford, Ernest Everett Just 1907 Professor of Biological Sciences; Deborah Nichols, William J. Bryant 1925 Professor of Anthropology

For Pease, scholarship and teaching are inseparable. "Endowed professorships provide critical support for faculty members to maintain their connection to the vital community of learners while, at the same time, expanding the boundaries of what we know," he says. For the past ten years, he has used funding from the Avalon Foundation professorship to organize an institute at Dartmouth where students and scholars from around the world discuss emerging research directions in American history and literature.

Throughout its history, Dartmouth's academic landscape has been shaped by endowed professorships, and they have enriched every department. The first such position was established in 1789, the year Congress proposed the Bill of Rights. Named in honor of one of the College's original trustees, the John Phillips Chair in Divinity was endowed for the sum of £37.10s, plus a private woodlot and 285 bushels of wheat. Today at Dartmouth, it takes $2.5 million to endow a professorship, $5 million for a Distinguished Endowed Chair. Endowed professorships give outstanding faculty members the opportunity to pursue their academic interests and bring that knowledge to the classroom. Distinguished Endowed Chairs recognize faculty who have made significant contributions to their fields and provide them with extra support for programmatic development.

"One of Dartmouth's strengths as a leading academic institution is to create opportunities through which we can identify and enable academic talent while retaining the flexibility to focus on new directions," says President James Wright. "Faculty strength is at the core of our excellent teaching and learning environment." As part of the Campaign for the Dartmouth Experience, the College seeks to add twenty-five new professorships to the faculty of arts and sciences, creating opportunities to recruit and to retain some of the world's most respected and promising teacher-scholars.

Four new chairs have recently been funded, and more are in the pipeline. A gift from Anne S. and Mark C. '78 Hansen in honor of his father has established the Charles Hansen Professorship, a chair that will acknowledge teaching and the advancement of liberal education. Two Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professorships in Emerging Fields, supported by $10 million from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, will enable the College to move quickly into new areas, expanding intellectual borders and pioneering new programs. The Robert Clements Professorship of Democracy and Politics, established in 2003, will bring a distinguished scholar to Dartmouth with teaching and research interests that will foster public discussion on principles of democracy and democratic transition.

Regardless of the field, the gift of a chair is an expression of confidence from the donor in the enduring quality of a Dartmouth education. It is also a signal to scholars everywhere that the institution is invested in maintaining and developing the disciplines each chair supports. "It's extraordinary that donors are willing to make this kind of commitment," says Deborah Nichols, the first holder of the William J. Bryant 1925 Chair in Anthropology. "It shows they understand the intellectual enterprise that lies at the core of the College."

Nichols, who studies the history and development of ancient urban centers, notes that endowed professorships frequently include funding that allows faculty members to strike out in new directions. Funds from her professorship enabled her to prepare a new senior seminar on ecological anthropology. "Through satellite imagery, we can see things on a scale we'd never been able to comprehend before. This brought environmental issues to people's attention, allowing us to see how closely these disciplines are intertwined. Fields emerge at the intersection between disciplines or as we ask novel questions.

"Although the bulk of my work is in Mexico," she adds, "I also help students identify research opportunities in many parts of the world. Archaeology students need to be engaged firsthand in archaeological investigations in the field and in the lab, and having this chair facilitates the work I can involve them in."

Chairs are also established to honor individuals who have played a pivotal role in Dartmouth's history. When George Langford became the first holder of the Ernest Everett Just 1907 Professorship of Biological Sciences, he assumed a position rich with significance. Endowed to honor Just, a renowned cell biologist and one of the College's earliest African American graduates, the position, says Langford, "has special meaning for the scientific and the African American communities." Alumni Award-winner Gary Love '76, who was instrumental in raising the funds that endowed the chair, says the position has been a catalyst. "Having a chair named for a great African American scientist speaks volumes about the intellectual capability of professors of color."

Langford and his students study squid giant nerve cells, which share  characteristics with mammalian nerve cells. "We're able to image structures in these large cells that we can't see in the small nerve cells of mammals," he says, "so we can use the nervous system of this marine organism to understand more about how our brains work." In addition, Langford has been instrumental in designing and implementing a program to support premed minority students. Love adds, "In George, our students of color have a mentor, an example. And everyone benefits from his superb teaching and scholarship."

Carol Folt, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences and professor of biological sciences, says that endowed chairs help keep Dartmouth at the forefront of higher education, providing resources that allow the College to confer academia's highest honors on its most distinguished faculty, while attracting new scholars to stimulate the learning environment.

"At a time when we are being presented with so many new questions to answer," she adds, "additional chairs will keep Dartmouth on the leading edge. They allow us to recruit and retain the finest academic talent in a competitive environment and to infuse the curriculum with the excitement and energy that a true scholar brings."

By LAUREL STAVIS

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Last Updated: 5/30/08