‘The Biggest Honor of My Academic Career’: Endowed Professors Celebrated

March 6, 2024 By Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu

John Nau III, a generous contributor to the University of Virginia, prepared to address more than 125 professors inside a building bearing his name. The professors were seated in an auditorium also named for Nau. Plus, nine faculty members in the crowd held endowed professorships Nau has funded.

But it wasn’t the professors who were anxious. It was Nau.

“I have never stood in front of such a distinguished group of academic leaders, so if I sound nervous, it is only because I am,” he said. 

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It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia
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The UVA-educated former Marine, who parlayed an entry-level job at Coca-Cola into a career overseeing a lucrative beer distribution company, was on hand last week to celebrate the most accomplished College of Arts & Sciences faculty, those who hold named and endowed professorships. Nau, representing both the Board of Visitors and the University’s many contributors who make endowed professorships possible, was the keynote speaker in a first-of-its-kind “Investiture Ceremony.”

The ceremony recognized 125 College of Arts & Sciences endowed professors for their contributions to the College and University. 

John Nau

Board of Visitors member, UVA alumnus and donor John Nau III tells the group that professors like them helped set him on his path to success. “I believe in giving back,” he says. (Photo by Stephanie Gross)

“UVA has certainly changed my life, and my family’s lives,” Nau continued, “and I believe paying back is the right thing to do. Today, we start a new tradition, a ceremony dedicated to recognizing the tremendous contributions made by you, our faculty.”

The ceremony recognizing endowed chairholders was dubbed an “investiture” to emphasize how honoring individual excellence and achievement bestows benefits upon the whole community, College Dean Christa Acampora said.

“You are the glory of the University,” Provost Ian Baucom told the audience, later adding, “You are a gift to the possibility that we can be hopeful in our collective lives because of what you do.” 

Christa Acampora

Dean Christa Acampora opens the ceremony, part of her efforts to recognize and celebrate the College’s professors and researchers. (Photo by Stephanie Gross)

The event capped Acampora’s early efforts to bolster faculty in the College. Since arriving on Grounds in September 2022, she has overseen the hiring of 54 new faculty members and focused on providing additional support and resources in the form of mentoring, workshops and outreach. Acampora said these efforts fall under one of the main strategic priorities for the College: to recruit, advance and re-recruit faculty. That also means, she said, that faculty across the school are recognized and rewarded. 

“In gathering today to honor those faculty who have earned the highest honors bestowed to faculty at the University, we are collectively sharing what makes UVA great, and that is good for all of us,” she told the professors.

Three medal recipients smile
Howard Epstein, Karen McGlathery and Scott Doney check out the medals they received at the ceremony. (Photo by Stephanie Gross)

As she spoke, each honoree in the audience cradled a small, blue paper bag. At Acampora’s prompting, the professors drew from their bags an Olympic-style, pewter-colored medal suspended from an orange and blue ribbon and slipped them over their heads.

“I hope you wear it with pride, and not just this evening,” she continued. “It is intended to be worn every time you wear your academic costumes, as an addition to your regalia. When you wear your medals, you are sustaining this community of honor that is enabling and activating our collective success and excellence at the University.”

2 recipients smile
Kevin Gaines, right, says being the Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice is “probably the biggest honor of my academic career.” He is with Mark Edmundson, an English professor, who also was honored. (Photo by Stephanie Gross)

“It was a very pleasant surprise,” said Jennifer Lawless, the Leone Reaves and George W. Spicer Professor of Politics and professor of public policy. “It is lovely to be honored amid all the other people who have achieved that level of recognition.”

In last week’s event, Acampora recognized all endowed professors, but in the future, only the newest ones will receive medals. She said the ceremony will become a biannual tradition. 

Endowed professorships are generally reserved for the most accomplished faculty. The distinction provides additional benefits.

“It allows flexibility to conduct more research, because the resources associated with that chair are time,” Lawless said. “We get more time to focus on our own research, which also improves our teaching and the service we can contribute to the University. Most professors will tell you time is the most valuable resource we have, and this ensures we have it.”

Many of the faculty members said they take immense pride in having endowed professorships named for significant contributors to UVA or to society in general.

“It is probably the biggest honor of my academic career to be the Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice,” Kevin Gaines said. “I think it is wonderful when institutions can recognize their faculty who have been fortunate enough to have an impact in their teaching and research.”

UVA President Jim Ryan said the ceremony provided an opportunity to remind the University community and professors that they are the backbone of the academic experience, especially at a time when colleges and universities are under scrutiny.

“We hear so much about threats to higher ed, whether it is AI, demographic shifts or declining trust,” Ryan told the professors. “The past few months, in particular, have made it feel like a tough time in higher education.

“But when you consider the expertise in this room, the passion and desire to improve the world, the impulse to do things the right way and bring others along with you,” he continued, “it is hard not to feel optimism.”

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Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications