Excellence, Defined, at UMass Boston Distinguished Faculty Lecture

December 13, 2012

Pamela Worth


Every spring, members of the faculty at UMass Boston write dozens of letters in support of the candidates for the Chancellor’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching, Scholarship, and Service, praising their colleagues’ talents, accomplishments, and dedication.

At every commencement, Chancellor J. Keith Motley presents his awards to the winning faculty members, describing their achievements and careers in glowing terms to an audience of thousands.

And every December, award winners finally get a turn to speak for themselves, at the Distinguished Faculty Lecture.

This year, faculty winners Stephanie Hartwell (teaching), Rachel Rubin (scholarship), John Tobin (scholarship), and Joan Liem (service) presented on the topics of their choice, united by the theme “Building UMass Boston: the Pursuit of Excellence.”

Professor Stephanie Hartwell, the director of the applied sociology master’s program, told the crowd of students, faculty, staff, and administrators that she loves teaching at UMass Boston because the university’s values of outreach and service align seamlessly with her own – and because of its support for research and creativity.

“The sky is the limit here for public service with a social justice mission,” Hartwell said.  “I’ve been at UMass Boston for 15 years and I’ve never once heard ‘You can’t do that.’”

American Studies Department Chair Rachel Rubin also weighed in on excellence, defining it not as a static idea, but as a continual blend of inspiration, conversation, and learning.  Rubin said her definition of an excellent class is “when somebody sticks her or his head in from outside and says, ‘Would you mind keeping it down just a little in there?’”

Education and the creation of scholars, Rubin said, happen as “a boisterous conversation, one carried out with excitement and enthusiasm, and one in which people disagree.” 

At UMass Boston, she said, or “at any university worth its salt, there is no definition capacious enough to even hint at excellence – but everyone is welcome to the conversation.”

Professor of English John Tobin deconstructed the concept of excellence by breaking the word into its Latin roots: ex, or “from,” and cellere, “to rise”: a particularly apt description of UMass Boston, he said, and of his research subject William Shakespeare.

Tobin explained that Shakespeare rose from humble beginnings – his father was fined for keeping a trash heap on their property – and grew into a genius whose works are beloved centuries after his death.  In a clever equation, he noted that before UMass Boston’s campus was constructed, Columbia Point was a landfill.

“Now almost 50 years later,” he said, “it is a central focus of the city’s innovative success and progressive future.”

Professor of Psychology and Special Assistant to the Provost Joan Liem reminisced on UMass Boston’s history, and her role in expanding its graduate programs – including founding the clinical psychology doctoral program, now ranked among the top 10 in the country.

Not long after joining the faculty at UMass Boston, she said, she served as director of graduate studies – a manageable task, she thought, as the university’s offerings were limited.

But on the same day she joined the provost’s office, she said, then-Chancellor Robert Corrigan held an emergency meeting to announce that the Massachusetts state legislature had ordered UMass Boston and Boston State College to merge. 

“Boston State had about two dozen master’s programs, and I was in charge of overseeing the review of every one of them,” Liem said.

With Liem’s leadership, UMass Boston incorporated the existing programs and revised its own offerings, setting a precedent for the thriving graduate programs that exist today.

Liem’s presentation drew a spontaneous standing ovation from her colleagues.

Introducing the honorees, Motley said, “I’m so grateful to have all four of our award winners here today and every day as members of this amazing faculty.”

Praising the high turnout at the event, he added, “It means a lot to me to see you all here.  This spirit of support and solidarity is what faculty members tell me they love about their work here, so let’s keep it going.”