The University Record, February 28, 1994

Regents name six to Thurnau Professorships

Six faculty members have been named to the Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship which “recognizes and rewards faculty for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education.” Announcement of the appointments was made at the February Regents’ meeting.

Those honored are Elizabeth S. Anderson, associate professor of philosophy; Morton Brown, professor of mathematics; Rebecca J. Scott, professor of history; John H. Vandermeer, professor of biology; Rob Van der Voo, professor of geological sciences; and R. Brent Wagner, associate professor of music.

The Thurnau Professorships, named after Arthur F. Thurnau, a U-M student in 1902–04, are supported by the Thurnau Charitable Trust established through his will. The University each year selects faculty members who are designated as Thurnau Professors for a three-year term and receive a grant to support their teaching activities.

Elizabeth S. Anderson

In recommending Anderson, Provost Gilbert R. Whitaker Jr. said: “The time, energy, and sensitivity that Prof. Anderson gives to her undergraduate courses and students is truly extraordinary. She is only a first-year associate professor but during her six years as assistant professor, she was pivotal in revitalizing the Department of Philosophy’s Honors concentration. She served as supervisor of 11 undergraduate Honors theses, accounting for more than one-third of Philosophy Honors theses during this period.

“Prof. Anderson is absolutely unparalleled in student mentoring. Students come to her because she is unstinting in her efforts to provide comments on their work; because she has the ability to find the best and most promising ideas students have, and to nurture their development; and because she takes undergraduate research to be of value, and conveys that to her students.”

Morton Brown

Morton has long been recognized as “one of our most outstanding instructors,” Whitaker said. “His clear and entertaining lectures have made him a popular speaker at math clubs, colloquia, and conferences in the United States and abroad.

“His experience as associate chair of the mathematics department in 1990 led him to consider the use of technology in calculus. In the next two years, he went through a major metamorphosis in his approach to teaching. He saw that what was needed was a radical change in the learning environment and he became convinced that the interactive/cooperative model of teaching was the ideal way to get freshmen involved in the learning process. This effort led to the ‘new wave’ calculus program in which the emphasis is on learning and the teacher’s role is more akin to that of a coach. To change the mode of instruction Prof. Brown faced an enormous task in the department: to retrain all instructors, from teaching assistants to the most senior faculty.”

Rebecca J. Scott

Scott is “a brilliant and dedicated teacher,” Whitaker noted. “She has single-handedly built the undergraduate courses in the Latin American field into major departmental offerings, despite being the only historian of a vast and complex world area. As her teaching evaluations from students and peers attest, she brings to her teaching a thorough knowledge of her field, an energetic and highly engaging teaching style, an unswerving commitment to undergraduate training, and an imaginative and persistent approach to curriculum development.

“Her dedication to teaching is perhaps most apparent in her work in the interdepartmental concentration Program in Latin American and Caribbean Studies and in the Postemancipation Studies Program.

“In sum, Prof. Scott is a tireless, innovative, and dedicated teacher.”

John H. Vandermeer

Vandermeer’s “greatest impact on undergraduate education has been his undergraduate courses for non-majors,” Whitaker said. “He has been responsible for the development and growth of an extremely popular and important offering, ‘Biology and Human Affairs.’ It is a large course that accomplishes two goals: passing on information about biological systems, ranging from the molecular aspects of genetics to ecology and evolution, and encouraging students to think about the impact of human activities, given this framework of information.

“Students are challenged to consider the results of both individual behavior and collective behavior. In lectures, discussions, and conferences, students are simultaneously actively learning about biology and considering the impact of human activity on biological systems. The course content is kept extremely current so that the questions raised are those most relevant to the lives of the students.”

Rob Van der Voo

Van der Voo has been “an inspiring leader in undergraduate education reform in his department as well as the University as a whole,” Whitaker said. “He has taken the improvement of the undergraduate experience as a major goal, both in his capacity as chair of the department and as a faculty member. For example, in 1990, he created an initiative that had most members of the department and several in the Department of Astronomy teaching a seminar that encouraged close interaction between instructor and students, to involve undergraduates who would otherwise have avoided science courses.

“Thousands of freshmen who will never meet him will have vastly different educational experiences here because he cared about them so persistently and because he was able to turn his ideas into reality.”

R. Brent Wagner

Wagner has directed the B.F.A. program in musical theater since 1984, Whitaker noted. “Though not the originator of this degree program, he is the prime mover in its extraordinary success, having shaped its destiny, defined and increased its visibility to the point at which it currently enjoys being the finest, most sought-after such program in the United States.

“The competition for admission to this undergraduate program is very keen. Successful applicants are rewarded with four years of unstinting, focused, perhaps even life-changing tutelage from Brent Wagner. He is a soft-spoken, rather unassuming man, but those characteristics mask an iron will and discipline, as well as boundless ambition on behalf of his program in general and his students in particular. He is determined that everything associated with the pro-gram in musical theater be of the very highest quality.”