During the busy October Trustee Weekend, President Hunter R. Rawlings III added three Cornell University professors to the short list of honored educators by presenting them the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellows Award.
At the Oct. 19 honoree dinner, Prof. Rosemary Avery, policy analysis and management, Prof. Timothy Fahey, natural resources and Prof. Stephen Sass, materials science, were given the prestigious fellowship and praised for their contribution to undergraduate education.
“They’re excellent faculty members and wonderful teachers,” Rawlings said. The winners each felt that that it was a honor to receive the award, especially because of what it represents, a recognition of undergraduate education in a predominately research based institution.
“It makes you feel good, especially because undergraduates have a say in it. It’s nice, when [undergraduates] say ‘look, this person does something [for education].’ It’s a special situation at a college like Cornell which some may say its highest priority is in research, which is true in a case, but also I [believe] in getting undergraduates involved in research and having them work alongside graduate students. It’s taking advantage of the opportunities so [undergraduates] get a special education,” Sass said.
Rawlings agreed that this focus on undergraduate studies adds to its importance in the University. “Teaching is often not highly valued professionally [in a research university]. This is a way, a very public way, of saying we value great teaching,” he said.
The University values great teaching by granting the fellows a $25,000 endowment to be used for educational purposes as well as the distinction of a Weiss Fellow throughout their tenure at Cornell. They receive the award in $5,000 increments for five years to use at their discretion.
Often the prospect of the access to funds that can expand their research is almost too much for winners to handle at first.
“They give you money for this,” said Prof. Jeffrey Haugaard, human development, who is also director of undergraduate studies in the department. Haugaard won the fellowship last year and has used some of the award to fund student career groups along with other student driven programs.
Sass feels similarly about the financial aspects of the award, noting that he hasn’t yet thought of a method to “enhance undergraduate education,” using the award. “I can’t think of any one thing [for the award]. I think it’s nice to have some type of resources but there are lots of possibilities,” he said.
However, it is difficult to make a decision of what to use the endowment for initially. Many professors who have won the award in the past, similar to Haugaard, found creative ways to utilize the money for the advancement of their students’ education. “[The award] says the institution really values undergraduate education. It think it’s a really important thing. [It shows] we recognize that and appreciate teaching,” he said.
With a two million dollar commitment, Board of Trustees chair Stephen H. Weiss ’57 endowed the Weiss Fellowship in the fall of 1992 in order to praise “the faculty who are the most effective, inspiring and distinguished teachers of undergraduate students,” as stated in an University press released at the time.
The University usually seeks nominations for the Weiss fellowship in March. Due to the extensive application process, the University president does not choose three of the six candidates for the award until October.
According to Rawlings, he has “the difficult job of whittling away three from among these very fine candidates.”
The process includes a letter from the nominator, a supporting letter from a faculty member or another member of the academic staff, as well as letters of support from six junior or senior undergraduate students. These student nominators also are called on to supply, in addition to their own letter, another supporting letter from a student and information for four additional students who are willing to support the candidate. The letters call for information regarding the candidate’s in and out-of-the classroom contributions to student life.
“A faculty committee reviews the nominees and they do an excellent job [of finding the best match for the award],” Rawlings said.
After they receive their honors, some of the past fellows note that they do not halt their praised student interactions but find it easier to do so knowing the praise they received in the past. “It’s much easier to spend time [interacting with students] and feel rewarded for it,” Haugaard said.
Prof. Daniel Schwarz, english, is also working with representatives from Campus Life to develop The Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellows Student Community Interaction Project. The project grants fellows a small stipend to spend on educational outings with students that include trips to events, concerts and plays. “We have an active program where [professors] participate,” Schwarz said.
1997 recipient Prof. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, human development, and Haugaard have taken advantage of this program by soliciting students for ventures of learning outside the classroom.
According to Schwarz, this is one way of showing appreciation to the Weiss fellows. “We’re very proud of the Weiss fellows,” he said.
The Weiss Fellowships were not the only awards praised during that October dinner. Prof. Stephen Hilgartner, science and technology, and Prof. Viranjini Munasinghe, anthropology, were praised for earning the Appel Fellowships for Humanists and Social Scientists in the College of Arts and Sciences. The award winners were announced in the spring.
The Appel fellowship was established in 1995 by Helen and Robert Appel to honor “creativity in teaching and research among newer faculty,” according to a University press release. The award allows recipients to take a year’s sabbatical and maintain their full salary. This time allows them to develop new courses, write or conduct research in order to improve their studies.
Archived article by Carlos Perkins