Pamela M. Kiser
A response given on occasion of being named Elon’s Distinguished University Professor for 2010.
There are not adequate words to say thank you in this situation – to all of you who have said these wonderful things about me, to those of you who nominated me for this recognition, to the members of the nominating committee who put my name forward, to Dr. Lambert and Dr. House who supported their nomination . My deepest gratitude to all of you.
And to you – my wonderful colleagues – I appreciate daily all the ways that you make working here so satisfying and enjoyable, and I appreciate your presence here tonight. John, Tom, and Russ – to be identified as remotely in the same league with you is an honor in itself. For the models of excellence that you have been and are to all of us – many thanks.
And a special thank you to my family who brings me so much joy. For keeping me sane, making me happy, and keeping me grounded to important things – thank you.
Being named a Distinguished University Professor is a possibility that would never have occurred to me when I started teaching at Elon in 1981 – and not simply because that designation had not yet been created. It would never have occurred to me because in many ways I was the unlikeliest of professors of any kind – distinguished or otherwise. In fact, I believe I might have been voted the “least likely to become a distinguished professor” if such a superlative had existed at the time I was employed here.
In 1981 I entered a department that had only been created five years earlier, a department whose presence many faculty were unhappy about, seeing it as a top-down project from the get-go and a threat to the liberal arts identity of the institution. How did I know this? They told me so! Moreover there were faculty who told me they were skeptical of our department’s approach to education because our students participated in internships and course linked community service. The term service-learning had not yet entered the Elon lexicon at all.
Furthermore I found that my department’s listing (“Human Services”) was frequently omitted from lists of all kinds during my earliest years, including the internal phone directory, which even then I looked at as both an insult and a gift. Although there were times that I took all this hard, as any self-respecting faculty member would, I remember also being mystified and amused at the on-going dramas which I came to think of as “tempests in teapots” for surely Elon could more accurately be described as a teapot at that time with its very small student body and faculty.
But beyond the narrow confines of the teapot, there were much weightier factors contributing to my unlikely Professor status. The northwestern North Carolina county in which I was born and where I grew up (Wilkes County) was named by the Wall Street Journal even in 2006 as “the least highly educated county in America and former moonshine capitol of the world.” And, yes, I will confess that my own family in generations past did its part to contribute to that identity.
As a side bar, on the list of the most highly educated counties in America – 3 were in Virginia, 2 in New York, and 2 were in Maryland. Orange County was the only county in NC on the most highly educated list. On the least highly educated list – 4 of the top ten counties (so to speak) were in NC, 3 in Texas, and one respectively from Alabama, Louisiana, and California. I can’t help but reflect on the make-up of Elon’s student body as it compares to these lists.
Within this least highly educated county where I grew up, I attended an elementary school that under today’s Federal nomenclature is referred to as a Title I school, with approximately 78% of its students currently qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Before running across this fact recently, I had seen my home community as having largely overcome the problems of poverty that were so apparent there during my childhood. My own children, however, even in recent years had expressed that when they visited the area they felt self-conscious about their relative affluence and felt that they were navigating a somewhat foreign culture.
My work just prior to joining the Elon faculty had engaged me in yet another disadvantaged community as I was working right here in Alamance County as a child and family therapist at the public mental health center. My days there were filled with everything from anxiety disorders and school phobia to suicidal teens and intra-familial sexual assault. Beyond the psychological issues, social conditions were also harsh for many families we served as family life was often riddled with the stresses of shift work, lay-offs, low wages, and industrial injuries.
To leave that world behind to begin teaching prompted some guilt for me. As strongly as I believed, and continue to believe, that education is the one greatest hope for our collective salvation, I could not help but feel too that I was turning my back on a world of urgent need. But once I arrived here it was easy to see working with our students at that time as an extension of my social work career. Not only did many of them have their own mental health and family issues, just as our students do now, but also our students then were primarily first generation college students, mostly from NC and Va. Although not the best prepared academically, they were for the most part humble, earnest, and open to what we had to offer.
Since that time Elon has changed dramatically. In telling this story, George Keller in his book, Transforming A College, follows the familiar narrative arc of a Horatio Alger novel. Poor small school overcomes overwhelming odds to achieve greatness. But as savvy readers, we know better than to fully trust that narrative. Those of us who have studied systems theory (or for that matter have just lived a few years) know that even the most positive changes in a system will likely create unintended, negative outcomes.
Squarely focused on this theme was one of the first books I was assigned in my graduate program. Entitled Loss and Change, it explored the inextricable linkages of these two phenomena and seems relevant here. Elon has changed dramatically and positively in the past 30 years, but there have also been losses.
I am hopeful that through our new strategic plan we can recover some of what we have lost as we reestablish socioeconomic diversity within our student body. I would like to think that in the future more students from the least highly educated counties of the United States might be able to benefit from an Elon education, not simply because they need us but because we need them. Through engaging our students with their studies, with one another, with us, and with the surrounding community, I hope that all of us will develop a deeper understanding of diversity among cultural and socioeconomic groups. Through our combined efforts, may we – students, faculty, staff and community — find the courage to wade deeply into these waters and the humility required to learn from one another. As our Chaplains say, “May it be so”.
As I reflect on how it is that I have come to be named a Distinguished University Professor despite my inauspicious beginnings, it strikes me that over the 30 years that I have been in higher education, the trends of academe, and of Elon more specifically, have become increasingly consonant with my own. Through the increasing value placed on engaged and experiential learning, service-learning, and civic engagement, the trajectories of higher education and of Elon University have intersected with my own professional identity, ideals, interests, and goals. As a result I have had opportunities for teaching, scholarship, and leadership that I never could have imagined as I started my career. For those opportunities, I am deeply grateful.
Many in congratulating me for this recognition have added “I will be so glad to see a woman’s face on that wall in Alamance.”John, Tom, Russ – We admire you and we love your faces on that wall and soon you will apparently become even more attractive by a touch more diversity there! There seems to be broad agreement that is time to recognize the contributions of Elon’s women to what this institution has become. The first woman named as Distinguished University Professor could have been any number of women at any number of times in the history of Elon. I could name several worthy candidates myself, as could many of you. I am humbled more than I can say that I hold that distinction. I do so proudly and on behalf of many.
I look forward to seeing that Alamance wall continue to be populated, in all likelihood by several of you here tonight. May it be so. Many thanks to all of you and God speed.
Pamela M. Kiser
October 4, 2010