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ASU’s Neal A. Lester to receive two MLK awards for impactful humanities efforts

January 17, 2019

Awards underscore professor's work in raising awareness about inhumanity and encouraging action on social justice issues

Arizona State University Professor Neal A. Lester agrees with poet Maya Angelou’s words: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” But that doesn't mean that he sees no value in our differences. So he challenges people to recognize, celebrate and embrace those differences.

For his work supporting that approach, he will be recognized over the next few days with two awards named after civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  

“It’s validating and it’s also a challenge,” said Lester, the founding director of Project Humanities and an ASU Foundation Professor of English. “The challenge is staying committed to doing social justice work — the work of humanity — when I am tired, frustrated, disappointed and in need of rejuvenation.

“The struggles for justice continue, but it is inspiring to know that I am not alone in this work and that Dr. King has provided a road map to achieving greater civility and greater service to others and to causes bigger than ourselves.”

Lester will receive an MLK “Living the Dream” Award at the city of Phoenix Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Friday. A few days later on Jan. 21, he will accept the Paradise Valley MLK 2019 Diversity Award and deliver the keynote address at a luncheon ceremony.

Already a recipient of the Diversity Leadership Alliance of Arizona Award, Lester believes these new awards underscore his life’s work in raising awareness on social justice issues and encouraging action to combat various forms of inhumanity. Lester said he wants people to better understand and then challenge systems of privilege and unconscious bias that exclude and deny another’s basic humanity. He said his work addresses the –isms in a way that moves beyond the often dismissive “political correctness” and “identity politics.”

Preacher’s kid

Lester said growing up in a rural northeast Georgia community during the civil rights era helped to inform his life’s work. He was mentored by people in his church and school; both communities prepared him to integrate to an all-white elementary school and a life outside the Deep South.

“Neal was an extremely bright young man who was a good writer and had exceptional penmanship,” said 84-year-old Doris Brown, Lester’s fifth-grade science teacher. “He worked well with his classmates. We had no discipline problems with him.”

That’s most likely due to the fact that Lester’s father was a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a preacher’s kid was expected to be a good example. Lester says he approaches his classroom and the ASU Project Humanities initiative in much the same way his father successfully pastored his churches — by being welcoming, encouraging and informative.

“My small black church was very much the training ground for the work I do today, but I didn’t realize that until much later,” Lester said. “My church family modeled for me the value of education and provided a multitude of opportunities for me to excel and demonstrate leadership.”

Talking, listening, connecting

That early leadership has been transferred to Project Humanities, a multiple-award-winning initiative that brings together individuals and communities from across Arizona and beyond to instill knowledge of humanities study, public programs and humanist thought. The initiative facilitates critical conversations across diverse communities, building understanding through “talking, listening and connecting.”

Lester formed Project Humanities in 2010 when the economy took a downturn and students were fleeing humanities majors and disciplines. ASU President Michael Crow turned to Lester, then the dean of humanities, with the express charge to make the humanities more robust and enticing. Lester accepted that challenge and set out to create, celebrate and promote public humanities.

“The first order of business was to demystify the humanities and talk about why it’s good for our society,” said Lester, who first put together a weeklong series of events that involved panel discussions and symposia that integrated a cross-section of scholars, professionals and national figures. It went over so well that the following year, the series of humanities-focused programming became monthlong. Today, Project Humanities offers impactful programming year-round.

The second order of business, Lester said, was taking the humanities out of the sometimes-believed-to-be exclusive university setting and going into the various communities. It was a move that endeared him to Valley residents and community leaders alike, and it helped the initiative to develop a strong following.

“Part of the reason for our success is that we don’t come to people as a savior. We say, ‘We want you to be a part of what we’re doing. We want your voices to be vital, and we want to learn from and with you,’” Lester said. “We also don’t want people always coming to us — we go to where they are.”

Project Humanities holds events in community centers, churches, movie theaters, parks, lawns, theaters, restaurants and other civic and art spaces. Topics have included love, romance, autism, death, caregiving, menstrual equity, environmental justice and sustainability, humor, truth, arranged marriages in India, body positivity and the story of historically black colleges and universities.  

And if you go to a Project Humanities program, be prepared to learn something new about yourself and others.

“I don’t want to host a program on something we already know because there has to be an element of discovery we always want attendees to experience,” Lester said. “I’m willing to take a chance on subjects that society doesn’t talk about or necessarily like to talk about.”

That sort of thinking greatly appealed to Scottsdale resident Jackie Rifkin.

“Whether Neal is talking to college students, community leaders or people experiencing homelessness, he encourages dialogue,” said Rifkin, who has volunteered for Project Humanities events for four years and attends many of Lester’s lectures throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area, including Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes at ASU. “His great strength is that he can relate to anybody regardless of their color (and age). In all his programs, his is constantly questioning: Is there a better way?”

Lester has also inspired John Skinner, vice president and chief of staff for ASU Enterprise Partners, which has sponsored several Project Humanities events.

“I’ve been a fan of Neal Lester’s since the day I met him several years ago,” Skinner said. “He has inspired me and so many others to grow beyond our current worldviews and preconceived notions. Dr. Lester, through his work at ASU and beyond, is a gift to humanity.”

New gift for the humanities

The Come Rain or Shine Foundation also recognizes Lester's impact. The group recently donated $25,000 to Project Humanities to put into action a new parenting and humanity initiative in 2019.

“Observing Dr. Lester in action within the community sparked our interest in Project Humanities,” said James D. Tuton, who heads up the Come Rain or Shine Foundation along with Michelle Mace. “Dr. Lester has the unique ability to instantaneously create an emotionally safe place for people to connect and share their differing worldviews.”

Mace and Tuton originally connected with Lester through Mace's son Andrew, who invited Lester to dinner. It was there where he asked Lester to give the induction keynote to the Desert Vista High School Rho Kappa Honor Society. Mace and Tuton joined Project Humanity's ongoing homeless outreach and then became intrigued about the annual Hacks for Humanity, a 36-hour “hackathon” for the social good.

What makes this hackathon unique is that it invites and attracts coders and non-coders, artists, humanists, futurists, designers and visionaries who work in teams to create technologies around Humanity 101 values: respect, integrity, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, kindness and self-reflection.

Mace and Tuton have served as opening hackathon keynoters and as mentors for the hackathon for the past two years. In addition to their positive experience with the hackathon, both Mace and Tuton say they never fail to learn something new from Lester every time they interact with him.

“Dr. Lester teaches us to listen for human experiences and understands that the energy required for learning comes from tapping into our own feelings and recognizing the feelings of others,” said Mace, referring to Project Humanities’ Service Saturdays, a homeless outreach started in 2014 in downtown Phoenix.

Every other Saturday, Lester coordinates anywhere from 20 to 60 volunteers in downtown Phoenix to distribute to the homeless various items, including clothes, toiletries, shoes, sandals, backpacks, books and magazines. Lester said this outreach keeps him grounded as he navigate spaces that can often leave him disillusioned, disappointed, discouraged and even too self-focused.

“Stepping out of my personal comfort zone to support others — particularly this very vulnerable community of 150 to 200 adults — is healing,” Lester said. “It also follows the model of Dr. Martin Luther King, who reminds us in his life work of the value of being of service to others.”

Top photo: Neal A. Lester, Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, poses for a portrait on the balcony of the Student Pavilion on ASU's Tempe campus on Jan. 14. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now


New initiative connects scientists to accelerate the pace of health research

January 17, 2019

Various studies estimate how long it takes for health research to go from the lab out into the world where it can do some good, with findings ranging anywhere from 10 to 17 years.

Health professionals universally agree that's way too long. To speed up the process from discovery to practice, many researchers and health practitioners have begun engaging in a different method to tackle health problems called “translational science.” In the translational science model, separate health-related groups combine forces to address a health issue from all sides, which reduces the amount of time it takes a health solution to reach the public. translational science spectrum The graphic represents each stage of research in the translational science spectrum as it goes from basic research to interventions that improve individual and public health. Its iterative structure is not linear; rather, each stage builds upon and informs the others. Source: https://ncats.nih.gov/translation/spectrum Download Full Image

To increase understanding of and competence in this form of scientific discovery, the College of Health Solutions is launching a Dissemination and Implementation (D&I) Affinity Network to help those interested in getting better at forming connections, sharing information and implementing research in this faster-paced translational science environment.

This effort launches Jan. 25 with a D&I Affinity Network Kickoff, a half-day seminar for any university faculty or staff member who wants to learn about D&I methodology and how to apply it to their various research and academic areas.

“This training is for scientists at every phase of the translational spectrum — from bench science to policy analysis — who need to improve and speed the dissemination and implementation of new knowledge so that it can be used to benefit population health as soon as possible,” said Scott Leischow, professor and director of translational science at the College of Health Solutions.  

Leischow and the other leaders of the D&I Affinity Network — Rodger Kessler, research professor and director of dissemination and implementation, and Matt Buman, associate professor, both of the College of Health Solutions — secured a grant from the Arizona Biomedical Research Centre to implement a yearlong training program on dissemination and implementation methodology. Part of the  grant will fund four nationally recognized experts in D&I methods, two this spring and two in the fall, to speak on D&I strategies and increase understanding about how this method can accelerate the pace at which research is implemented.

“We want to create a pool of knowledge about D&I and increase the use of D&I methodology to help speed innovation in many areas of health to have a greater impact on our Arizona communities,” Leischow said.

“Dissemination and implementation represents a fundamental shift in the philosophy of science, focusing on rigorous and rapid response to questions that are important to our partners and communities,” Kessler said. “It applies to any health issue or research area. We are creating a flexible framework of people from a broad spectrum of translation, who will learn from each other and achieve more than if each person or system worked on the same problem in isolation. It will serve as the cornerstone to academic and community research at ASU going forward.”

Flexibility is key to the dissemination and implementation process and the affinity network structure, agreed Deborah Williams, clinical assistant professor and manager of the College of Health Solutions Translational Team initiative. Affinity networks also depend on the relationships that happen when scientists collaborate.

“It’s based on, not only the value of the knowledge, but also recognizes that the flow of knowledge is itself a resource,” she said. “So this affinity network is not really a rigid structure. It’s more of a pathway that allows for the accumulation and transfer of knowledge. You have to create a pathway, or knowledge doesn’t go anywhere. This structure is a recognition that the world is more relational than we realize and that those relationships have value.”

This more nimble affinity network system will make it easier to work with community partners as well.

“We hear over and over that the community is eager to connect with ASU experts or researchers, but there’s not always a way to do that,” Williams said. “And sometimes the community is doing things very similarly to what our researchers are doing, so this D&I network will help us build connections to learn from each other better ways to do things and not duplicate efforts.”

Learn more about the Dissemination and Implementation Affinity Network and how to join the kickoff seminar on Jan. 25.

Kelly Krause

Coordinator, College of Health Solutions

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'Mustard Man' at Woolworth's 1963 sit-in celebrated by maroon and gold

January 16, 2019

ASU alum helped organize iconic 1963 lunch counter protest that challenged racial segregation in the Deep South

He was a civil rights activist and academic.

The son of a Native American who taught at an all-black college.

A bold demonstrator in the bloody 1963 Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in that focused intense national debate on segregation.

A personal friend and associate of NAACP head Medgar Evers, who was assassinated at his Mississippi home by a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

John Randall Salter Jr., who received two degrees from Arizona State University in the 1950s and 1960s, died Jan. 7 at his home in Pocatello, Idaho, of natural causes. He was 84.  

“Beyond alumni, beyond student and teacher, beyond any label we might have, we are all humans,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “And to stand up for your fellow humans, to take the hard path and challenge the status quo, to say, ‘This is wrong’ and then do something about it — this is an example of greatness. The ASU community has lost a true changemaker in John R. Salter.”

Social justice warrior

Though a lifelong social justice activist, Salter’s defining moment occurred in his late 20s when he answered the call by NAACP State Field Secretary Medgar Evers to join several students from Mississippi’s historically black Tougaloo College at a segregated lunch counter inside the F.W. Woolworth’s retail store on Capitol Street in downtown Jackson. The May 28, 1963, controversy erupted in chaos and violence when activists ordered service.

The peaceful protesters were taunted and brutalized by a hostile mob, who doused them with sugar, mustard and ketchup. Many of the women were pulled off their stools by their hair while the men were brutally beaten — some knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital. Salter later recalled in interviews that he had been attacked with brass knuckles and broken glass. He also had cigarettes stubbed out on his back and neck, leaving permanent scars.

Young man with protesters
John Richard Salter Jr. at a Blair Street A.M.E. Church in Jackson, Mississippi, where he spoke to the congregation in his torn and bloody shirt in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of HunterBear.org

"We learned later that local radio stations were encouraging people to go there and participate in mob activity," Salter recalled in a 2015 article for The Guardian, a British daily newspaper. "All the while the air was filled with obscenities, the N-word — it was a lavish display of unbridled hatred."

The taunting and torment went on for three hours before police grudgingly ended the protest, mostly to prevent damage to the store when the mob began throwing merchandise.  

A photo taken by Fred Blackwell of the Jackson Daily News forever preserved the moment in history and was later used in various teaching textbooks.

In Jackson, Salter earned the nickname "Mustard Man" because the photo showed him drenched in condiments. 

Book cover

The Woolworth's demonstration made worldwide headlines, and two weeks later President John F. Kennedy used the flashpoint as a rallying call for a comprehensive national civil rights bill. That same night, Evers was struck in the back of the head by a bullet fired by an assassin’s rifle.

It was Salter who appealed through a telephone call to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Jackson for Evers’ funeral. King immediately agreed and ended up leading a procession of 5,000 people.

Salter published a book in 1979 about his civil rights experiences called “Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism.” The book was revised and updated in 2011 by Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press.

Unsung hero of the civil rights movement

ASU's Neal A. Lester called Salter an unsung hero and an inspiring figure.

“Mr. Salter’s story is a reminder that unsung heroes for justice are always among us. To put a face and story with the iconic Woolworth’s sit-in photograph, especially someone with an Arizona connection, is refreshing,” said Lester, professor of English and director of Project Humanities. “Too often our American history relegates such icons and iconic moments to the Deep South. That Mr. Salter was an educator who joined his students in protest is inspiring. He modeled the risk-taking that is so fundamental to demonstrating our own humanity and each other’s.”

Born on Feb. 14, 1934, in Chicago, Salter was raised in Flagstaff, Arizona, where his American IndianSalter said his father was a Wabanaki Indian. father was an artist and college professor. His mother was also a teacher.

Salter graduated high school in 1951 and served a stint in the Army. He pursued his undergraduate degree in social studies from Arizona State University and graduated in 1958 — the same year the institution was officially recognized as a state university. Two years later he received a master’s degree in sociology. While at ASU, he organized student groups and did volunteer work for the International Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, among other groups.

He continued his work as a labor union organizer before moving to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961 with his wife, Eldri Johanson. Salter was an assistant professor at Tougaloo College and also served as an adviser to the Jackson Youth Council of the NAACP and as an executive committee of the Jackson NAACP, working closely with Evers.

Salter quickly became a civil rights leader and community organizer. He and his wife helped organize boycotts of several businesses that practiced discrimination in downtown Jackson. He said he was beaten and ridiculed on numerous occasions for his activism in the Deep South — by both unruly mobs and police. Weeks after the Woolworth's clash he was seriously injured with a colleague when his car was wrecked in what he believed was a rigged automobile accident. He was also the subject of several smear campaigns and was surveilled by the FBI, which compiled a large dossier on him.

“It helps to have, as I have since the hatch, a thick skull and a thick hide,” Salter wrote on his website.

A life of activism and the classroom

Salter’s career was a mix of teaching and activism, which took him around the country. He organized several grassroots events on social justice, poverty, literacy, youth activity and labor and held teaching posts at Superior State College in Wisconsin; Navajo Community College (now Diné College) in Tsaile, Arizona; Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont; Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; the University of Iowa; and the University of North Dakota. Salter also taught and developed courses for the American Indian Cultural Center at the Iowa State Penitentiary.

He retired as a full professor and former departmental chair from the American Indian Studies Department at the University of North Dakota, where he worked from 1981 to 1994. Salter changed his name in 1995 to John Hunter Gray to honor his Native American roots.

Salter moved to Pocatello, Idaho, after retirement and remained involved in various civil rights campaigns until his death.

"Mr. Salter's life and his actions remind us that turmoil around the rights of others is everyone's challenge. That he stood up — or, in this case, sat down — for the rights of others demonstrates courage and a committment to justice," said Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, President’s Professor, director of the Center for Indian Education and ASU’s special adviser to the president on American Indian affairs. "While some may boil his activism down to this moment at the lunch counter, it is obvious that Mr. Salter spent his life engaged in acts of social justice. In so many ways, he embodies the spirit of the New American University by accepting the responsibility of helping create a better, healthier society. May he rest in peace and power."

Top photo: John R. Salter Jr. (seated left and in the foreground) helped organize the May 28, 1963, Woolworth's sit-in demonstration in Jackson, Mississippi. The civil rights activist was a product of Arizona State University, where he received his undergraduate in 1958 and a master's degree in sociology in 1960. Photo courtesy of the Jackson Daily News

Reporter , ASU Now


The art of the application: How one ASU researcher and activist became a Ford Fellow

Distinguished Graduate Fellowships initiative helps Sarra Tekola in her pursuit of a Ford Foundation Fellowship

January 14, 2019

For this installment of ASU Now’s "culture of pursuit" series, we interview Sarra Tekola, recent awardee of the highly competitive and distinguished Ford Foundation Fellowship. 

The Ford Foundation awards research-funding fellowships to both predoctoral and postdoctoral researchers. Tekola is a PhD student in the School of Sustainability. She took advantage of ASU’s support of Ford Fellowship applicants via the Graduate College's Distinguished Graduate Fellowships Initiative, developed in partnership with the Office of National Scholarship Advisement at Barrett.  Tekola attended information sessions and writing workshops, in addition to other rigorous pursuits in the process of strategically writing, reviewing, revising, and, then redoing the whole process over again and again, until her Ford application was perfect.  Ford Fellow Sarra Tekola lectures on climate justice with her group, Women of Color Speak Out, at the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle. Photo by FB @Renotography, IG @_Renotography Download Full Image

Here, Tekola shares her advice on what it takes to produce a winning application for a competitive fellowship that hovers around a 5 percent success rate.

Question: What motivated you to apply for an award as competitive and distinguished as a Ford Foundation Fellowship?

Answer: Before applying to graduate school, I checked out the fellowships available to me, and most of them didn’t really fit because my research is so interdisciplinary. Really, it’s the first of its kind— the topic that I’m studying is colonization in western culture and how it effects climate change. So, for example, my research spans through sociology, psychology, geography, political ecology, and I’m in the discipline of sustainability. Most of the other fellowships wouldn’t be able to understand or handle all of that. So, when I read the Ford Fellowship description — of what they were looking for — I really felt like that was me. I knew I had to apply for it because there wasn’t another fellowship that applied to my work like it did.

Q: When did you apply, and how did you win?

A: I applied twice, actually. The first time I applied was in my first year of graduate school. I heard about the fellowship the first time two weeks before it was due. The goals of the fellowship just really spoke to me — and not just because of my research. I do a lot of work within communities of color and underrepresented communities. Ford not only values that work, but they actually require it.  Ford requires that you work with marginalized communities, that you show engagement with these populations. Well, I knew I had that part down as far as the essays went.

There were three essays that I had to write. But, for the research essay part of the application, I didn’t really have my research nailed down yet in my first year. But, I put something together anyway, and I managed to get honorable mention. That encouraged me. I knew that I was on to something but that I had to get my research nailed down. I also knew that if I took more time to write, I’d have a better chance. So, I applied again in my second year. But, this time I started my application in August — the deadline is in December. I spent months writing and rewriting. I revised all of the essays that I had written the first time. I went back and looked at the feedback that the reviewers had given me, and I incorporated their feedback into my new essays. I completely changed my research essay.

And, then, the Graduate College offered an info session on Ford. I attended that. And, there was a lot of interest expressed at that info session. Then, they offered a writing workshop for the Ford Fellowship, and I attended that, as well. Also, there were some Ford reviewers who were also professors at ASU. I kind of hounded them down, emailed them, and got them to look over my essays. I also got both of my advisors in my committee to look over my essays. So, I really did it differently my second time around and gave the application the attention it deserved, and I think that’s why this time around I got a different result.

Q: Is there anything that you wish you would’ve known at the beginning of your application process?

A: Well, for the first time I applied, really knowing how much time it takes to do it right. It takes months. Over those months that I wrote my second application, I kept coming back to it over and over and adding new things and changing things. Also, I think it’s necessary to go out and find at least five researchers or professionals to look over your essays. The Graduate College will help with this through their workshops — and it’s really helpful. But you should also take ownership, as well, and go out find researchers and professionals to help. Each of my reviewers pointed out different things in different ways.  I had people from different disciplines that gave varying perspectives, and I think that helped, as well. 

Q: If you had one piece of advice for your fellow graduate students and postdoc researchers regarding their current and future careers, what would it be?

A: You should have a drive to always be looking for fellowships, always be looking for opportunities. It’s part of the quest for knowledge. When you’re in graduate school or in a post-doc fellowship, it’s not enough just to work on your research.  You need to always be looking for ways to expand your opportunities. I’m always applying to fellowships, research experiences, conferences, other opportunities. A lot of these opportunities are only available while you’re attending or working in graduate school. So, my advice is to always be looking for opportunities and applying to get those opportunities. 

Q: Do you have an idea of what you’d like to do once you receive your doctorate?

A: I’m looking into teaching. I definitely want to make sure that I stay rooted in community and stay accessible to support marginalized communities. Coming from my own background, I’m a first-generation college student. I went through community college, and I couldn’t have gotten here without the support programs and the mentors that I had. So, I want to make sure that I also support that. I’m looking into either teaching at a community college and possibly creating my own non-profit based around community-based participatory research. Or, I’d be interested in working at a university that deals with the publish or perish issue in a way that doesn’t disconnect professors from community.  If I could find a forward-thinking university that valued my community work equally to my publications, then that’s what I’d want to do. Otherwise, it’ll probably some sort of combination of community college and non-profit or government work.

Q: How do you deal with career-related stress and anxiety?

A: Well, for me, I probably take a different approach from most Ford Fellows and academics. I really don’t stress about academics, per se. For me, it’s really more about the impact. One of the things that’s really important to me is staying rooted in community. I don’t want to lose touch with community because I want to stay relevant. Sometimes I see scientists get caught in the lab so much that they forget how to impact communities. But staying in touch with community also helps me with stress because I always know that just as I take care of community, community takes care of me. They’re there for me when I’m stressed. And, also, career-wise, being connected in a lot of different ways with different communities has helped my career. I know people in government, people in non-profits, other sectors — because of all of the work that I do outside of academia. They help with the career support that I need, and that helps with stress, too. So, staying rooted in community is how I deal with stress.

Graduate Fellowships Advisor, Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement

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University presidents convene to outline higher ed future in Arizona

January 11, 2019

ASU President Michael Crow to state: ‘We don’t need you to fund the university, we need you to fund students from Arizona'

The presidents of Arizona’s three state universities are hoping that the upcoming legislative session is when lawmakers will finally consider the “50/50” funding model they’ve been promoting for several years.

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said the three public institutions have changed their operating models to become more entrepreneurial and efficient and that the state should commit to paying for half the cost of educating in-state students at ASU, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona.

“All three of us have moved to the position where we say, ‘We don’t need you to fund the university, we need you to fund students from Arizona,'" he said at a talk sponsored by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix on Friday morning.

External audits have proven that the three universities’ costs are among the lowest in the nation, Crow said, but state funding is less than $4,000 per in-state student — far below half the cost of attendance.

“It’s a simple model, and we can then tell you how many of those students graduate and our objective would be to graduate 90 percent of those or more,” he said.

Currently, there is no strategic funding model for public higher education in Arizona.

“The historical model that was in place for decades is gone,” he said. “The temporary model that lasted for a few nanoseconds on performance-based funding is gone.”

Rita Cheng, president of NAU, noted that the universities took on the unfunded mandate of Arizona’s Teachers Academy — a tuition-relief program in response to Gov. Doug Ducey’s call in 2017 to help ease the critical teacher shortage in the state. She said the 50/50 funding model would demonstrate a commitment among the state, the universities and Arizona’s families.

valley voices
Silvia Symonds, associate vice president of outreach (second from left); Edmundo Hidalgo, vice president of outreach; Kenja Hassan, director of the downtown campus' public affairs; and Vice Provost Maria Hesse listen as President Michael Crow discusses the state of higher education in Arizona at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix on Friday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“Being near the bottom of outcomes for education doesn’t sound good and doesn’t feel good, and we should realize there is a solution to this if we work together,” she said.

Robert Robbins, president of the University of Arizona, said that research at the institutions operate at a loss.

“We have almost $750 million in research expenditures that run as a deficit operation. That’s not good business,” he said of his school. “It’s a disaster if you think of the long-term vitality of the workforce.”

Crow said that ASU has become more productive and efficient, noting that the university has 12 employees per 100 students, compared with 50 per 100 students at Ohio State University.

“We’re producing three times the number of graduates, at a higher quality, and doing five times the level of research we were doing and we doubled the four-year graduation rate,” he said.

“We’ve lowered the cost to the state to produce a degree by 75 percent per degree produced. We have not increased the average student debt in a measurable way,” he said.

Yet Arizona is underperforming when it comes to producing college graduates, with only 45 percent of the population with a postsecondary credential. The goal is to reach 60 percent by the year 2030.

Ron Shoopman, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, told the crowd at the “Valley Voices” event that although tuition increases over the last six years have been lower than inflation, graduation rates are still a problem. 

“We face a problem with educational attainment in Arizona,” he said. “Our students progress to higher education at a rate 20 percent lower than the national average. That’s a problem.

“About half of our students enter a university someplace, but only 23 percent of them graduate. It’s a looming issue and one we have to solve.”

Robbins said the University of Arizona has been working on a new strategic plan to improve retention and graduation rates.

“One of the things we’ve been resolute in is we have not attained the success with our students we need to,” he said. “We want to change a culture that’s been fairly static for the last several years.”

Crow said that the culture in Arizona has allowed the universities to redesign themselves to be more productive and efficient. But he criticized the move by the state’s attorney general to try to stop ASU from generating revenue from land it owns. On Thursday, Attorney General Mark Brnovich sued the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the three universities. He believes it’s illegal to allow private companies to build on university-owned land and then pay ASU in lieu of taxes.

“It’s a strange moment in time,” Crow said of the lawsuit, because essentially, Brnovich, who represents the Board of Regents, is suing his own client. Crow said that ASU has the authority to create those real-estate partnerships to generate revenue.

“You want the people who are running a university to think very long term.”

Top photo: ASU President Michael Crow (center), along with University of Arizona President Robert Robbins and Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng, discuss the state of higher education in Arizona at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix on Friday. The three state university presidents spoke as part of the Valley Voices event presented by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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New associate director sees research from ASU's Morrison Institute helping to inform policy-making

New research director wants Morrison work to drive policy decision-making.
January 7, 2019

Making data-driven results accessible to decision-makers is the goal for Melissa Kovacs

“ASU research has purpose and impact,” states one of the eight design aspirations of Arizona State University. Melissa Kovacs, the new associate director for research at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, brings an entrepreneurial mindset to the job, emphasizing that the work fulfills that institutional objective.

 “The entrepreneurial mindset is thinking about who the end consumer is, and our product is our research — evidence-based, data-driven research — that we want to get to everyone who could possibly use it,” said Kovacs, who was named to the post last month.

Melissa Kovacs is the new associate director for research at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU.

The Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a nonpartisan research center that’s housed in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at ASU. The center includes the Latino Public Policy Center and the Kyl Center for Water Policy, and last year it completed a multi-year, five-part report on child neglect as well as an analysis of voting trends.

“The work that comes out of Morrison informs everyone from voters to academics to policy-makers and community leaders, and I’m looking at continuing that and amplifying it and making sure that everything is digestible and accessible to all of these groups,” she said.

Kovacs founded FirstEval, a data analytics and statistics consulting firm, and is former research director for Maricopa County's Justice System Planning and Information department, where she oversaw research and evaluation projects of the criminal justice system.

“What makes me excited is when you see decision-makers and policy-makers act on evidence-based research,” she said. “When the research is done, there is a conclusion and there’s a finding and you see that guiding the decision-making: That’s my bliss.”

Arizona has some policy challenges, she said.

“It’s a tough state to be a child, which is my own personal lens,” she said. “But that also presents opportunities.”

She sees Arizonans as open to working together.

 “I found that in Arizona, people are so open to collaboration and networking,” she said. “That’s an attitude I didn’t always see when I worked on the East Coast.

 “And that makes for a great business climate and a great climate to accomplish things.”

Top photo: Downtown Phoenix glitters at night. Photo by ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


First woman to earn PhD in physics at ASU marks 25 years working in modeling instruction program

January 2, 2019

Jane Jackson was the first woman to receive her PhD in physics at Arizona State University. This month she celebrates 25 years working with ASU.

Her journey in physics began as a teenager: She began to ponder and question the makeup of the universe — and her place in it. She checked out Albert Einstein’s “The Evolution of Physics” from her local library and decided after reading it that physics held the answers she was looking for. Jane Jackson has been integral to ASU's modeling instruction program for 25 years. Download Full Image

Jackson moved from New York to attend ASU in 1962. The physics program was tiny then, and out of 17 students, she was the only woman.

While studying, Jackson involved herself with the Society of Physics Students, serving as vice president and treasurer.

“It was a small group — supportive, good-humored — rather like a family of peers,” she said.

Encouraged by her mentors, she stayed on to earn her doctorate and became the first woman to receive a doctorate in physics at ASU.

“My PhD adviser Akbar Ahmadzadeh and my two favorite professors, David Hestenes and Richard (Dick) Jacob, were very important to my success at ASU,” she said. “These three challenged me the most.”

After graduating, Jackson went on to become an assistant physics professor at South Dakota State University for eight years. After receiving an offer for a faculty position at Scottsdale Community College, she returned to Arizona and soon found her way back to ASU to take on an exciting new challenge.

“When I learned in 1994 that David Hestenes had just been awarded a $4 million grant by the National Science Foundation for modeling instruction, I saw its potential for excellence, so I accepted a job as project co-director,” she said. “All told, 6,000 high school teachers and many thousands of their students have benefited from this program in the last 20 years.”

The modeling program, a part of the Arizona STEM network, led by Science Foundation Arizona, provides professional development for high school and middle school teachers.

Arizona has a distinct shortage of teachers of the physical sciences, and a large percentage of those currently teaching these K-12 courses do not hold degrees in the subjects they are teaching. The STEM program courses offered through the ASU graduate program for teachers are specifically designed to meet professional development needs of high school and postsecondary physics, chemistry and physical science teachers.

Teachers can enroll in these courses to earn credit toward recertification, become more effective in the classroom, progress toward becoming qualified faculty by the Higher Learning Commission, pursue an interdisciplinary Master of Natural Science degree (MNS), or as electives in education degrees.

Better-qualified teachers improve the learning and achievement of K-12 students, promoting scientific literacy and critical thinking skills.

“It is so necessary; critical thinking is essential to meet 21st-century challenges ahead, such as global warming,” Jackson said of the program. “Physics is the foundation of all sciences, engineering and technology. Thus, Arizona’s economic competitiveness depends on a strong K-12 education that includes a robust physics course.”

Dominique Perkins

Events and Communications Coordinator, Department of Physics


St. Mary’s Food Bank and ASU PhD candidate selected as 2019 MLK Jr. Servant-Leadership awardees

January 2, 2019

Each year, Arizona State University honors leaders in the community for their commitment to servant leadership in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.’s admirable contributions to the world. From fighting to end hunger to encouraging representation in theater, this year’s awardees are exceptional examples of how voices can speak out to disrupt the noise and demand change.  

St. Mary’s is the world’s first food bank, and it tackles hunger in Arizona through distribution, children’s feeding programs and employment preparation. Meanwhile, Dontá McGilvery is an ASU Theatre for Youth PhD candidate who has devoted his life to serving marginalized communities and telling their stories.   Tom Kertis, president and CEO of St. Mary's Food Bank, will be accepting the 2019 ASU MLK Jr. Servant-Leadership award on behalf of the food bank. Download Full Image

The two recipients will be presented with their awards at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration on Jan. 24 to conclude a week of festivities honoring King.  

About St. Mary’s Food Bank, this year’s ASU MLK Jr. Servant-Leadership awardee  

St. Mary’s Food Bank is committed to serving the Arizona community through volunteerism by bettering the lives of Arizonans in need, one meal at a time. 

Tom Kertis, president and CEO of St. Mary’s, will be accepting the award on the organization’s behalf. Kertis began his involvement with St. Mary’s in 2003 as a donor and volunteer, joined the board of directors a decade later and became CEO in 2016.  

“We're here to fill a void in our community,” Kertis said. “We’re providing great food to help these people grow and develop, these children grow and develop, and so therefore we’re there to fill this basic human need.” 

The organization distributes food to almost 500 nonprofit partners including food pantries and homeless shelters that represent 13 of Arizona’s 15 counties. Beyond food distribution, St. Mary’s also oversees children’s feeding programs and a community kitchen.  

St. Mary’s hands-on approach to ending hunger includes not only distributing food, but also combating poverty through employment assistance at its community kitchen. Here, those who experience barriers to employment can learn food skills and receive food service training. The organization also offers job placement assistance and support to graduates of the program. 

“At St. Mary’s, we are very fortunate that we have a lot of people who volunteer to help make our community stronger, just like Dr. King engaged the community by rallying people toward a common goal,” Kertis said. “St. Mary's over the years continues to rally people to fight hunger in our community. I think there's some similarities, some parallels there.” 

Meet Dontá McGilvery, this year’s ASU MLK Jr. Student Servant-Leadership awardee 

As a pastor, student and changemaker, Dontá McGilvery takes initiative in marginalized communities to promote representation while simultaneously combating misrepresentation.  

McGilvery is a Theatre for Youth PhD candidate at ASU who hopes to amplify the voices of people of color using theater as a platform, especially for children 

Donta McGilvery
Dontá McGilvery, recipient of the 2019 ASU MLK Jr. Student Servant-Leadership Award, is the founder of Sleeveless Acts Drama Company, a Phoenix nonprofit that strives to combat systematic inequality in the drama industry by telling stories that otherwise might have been left unheard.

“We have to acknowledge a child’s education, and we have to value their education,” McGilvery said. “Not just by putting on cool productions, but by showing them that these productions they are involved in and they are creating themselves can also be a response to the deeper things of life that even adults don’t quite understand.” 

McGilvery is the founder of Sleeveless Acts Drama Company in Phoenix. Sleeveless Acts is a nonprofit that strives to combat systematic inequality in the drama industry by telling stories that otherwise might have been left unheard 

In the spring 2019 semester, he will teach a course he created at ASU titled African-American Theater that explores the work oAfrican-American playwrights. He also serves as the director of drama ministry at the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, where he oversees drama productions. 

“I would like to do this so I can inspire future theater artists to go into the world understanding that life is bigger than our own stories,” McGilvery said. I want to disrupt the curriculum we receive in most universities that’s very much dominated by a white narrative.  

As a student at Southern Methodist University, McGilvery studied social justice. This was an experience to which he credits becoming entirely aware of the systemic roadblocks that oppress certain populations, primarily in regard to people of color.  

From participating in a civil rights pilgrimage in the U.S. South on three separate occasions to traveling abroad to study the conflict between Israel and Palestine, McGilvery developed an understanding of social conflict that he says awakened his consciousness. When he returned to school, he founded the Dallas Improvement Association to provide resources to local families and schools in need.   

During his time at SMU, McGilvery voluntarily lived on the streets of Dallas for a year to research the increase of homelessness and study its impact on students. This unfolded into what he calls “Project Homeless,” a study program offering volunteers of the Dallas Improvement Association to do the same. 

“I’m inspired by the oppression I see,” McGilvery said. “Those who are oppressed and dehumanized in all sorts of ways are the people who inspire me to keep going (…) to help be the voice for the voiceless and help the voiceless use their own voice. That includes women, that includes people of color, that includes youth, that includes those who are incarcerated.” 

McGilvery is an agent of change committed to bettering the community as a whole and creating an equal platform of opportunity — on the stage and beyond. Eventually, he hopes to become a professor so he can continue to preach the importance of representation in theater.  

Ultimately, he said it’s seeing the faces of the lives touched by his service that motivates him to continue and confirms that he’s taking on both the right and necessary actions for the benefit of his community.  

“It’s really not about me,” McGilvery said. “It’s about the people who are encouraged through what I can offer.” 

For more information about ASU events honoring King, go to asu.edu/mlk.

ASU’s Schmidt Futures finalists to take ideas on helping middle class to national competition

December 27, 2018

Arizona State University announced this week the three finalist teams selected to represent the institution in a national pitch competition in January focused on addressing the needs of the middle class.

The selected finalists will present their proposed solutions to increase the net income by 10 percent of 10,000 local middle-class households by 2020, to a screening panel convened by Schmidt Futures, a venture facility for public benefit founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt. FAFSA Team "The Power of FAFSA: Middle Class Wealth Generator and Statewide Economic Engine." Team members include (from left) Edmundo Hidalgo, Rachel Yanof, Julie Sainz and Sylvia Symonds. Download Full Image

“The teams’ solutions respond to pressing needs of Arizona’s middle class,” said Jacqueline Smith, associate vice president of university initiatives at ASU. “Together, they represent some of the greatest burdens on families’ budgets, including housing, transportation and the costs of postsecondary education. Even modest improvements in these areas will have significant implications for the financial health and resiliency of Arizonans.” 

A competitive slate of 10 teams was initially chosen to receive $50,000 in seed funding and coaching to develop and refine their ideas. After a local pitch competition, the three final teams were selected by a board of prominent community leaders using a number of criteria, including innovation, value to diverse communities, and partner focus, among others. In the weeks leading up to the national competition, ASU will provide the finalists additional support to enhance their proposals.

ASU President Michael M. Crow praised the teams and their work to benefit Arizona’s middle class.

“This competition is a natural fit for ASU’s charter and design aspirations,” Crow said. “These innovative ideas reflect our commitment to the vibrancy of the local community and leverage the university’s position as an anchor institution.”

ASU’s teams are a result of work that began in April, when Schmidt Futures enlisted four public universities — ASU, the Ohio State University, the University of Utah and the University of Wisconsin-Madison — as the inaugural partners of the Alliance for the American Dream. Each university was awarded funding to develop ideas that promote shared prosperity in their regions over two rounds of competition.

The national competition, bringing the top three teams from each of the four universities, will take place on Jan. 29 in downtown Phoenix.

The finalists are:

The Power of the FAFSA: Middle Class Wealth Generator and Statewide Economic Engine

A coalition including Achieve60AZ, the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education, College Success AZ and ASU aims to help at least 10,000 middle-class families in the Phoenix area apply for financial aid to support postsecondary studies. Modeled after digital tools used at ASU, the coalition will launch a new chatbot to address students’ questions about the financial aid process. The coalition will promote the tool and their campaign with awareness events, small group interventions and individualized coaching for parents and students. The average family should expect an annual financial aid award of nearly $10,000.

Intergenerational HomeSharing at Scale

This solution helps older homeowners rent out living space to college students in exchange for 10-20 hours per week of household maintenance tasks that become more challenging with age (e.g. lawn care, cleaning, grocery shopping, pet care) and/or a reduced rental income. By choosing to homeshare, college students can save an estimated $6,000-$10,000 per year in housing costs. Older homeowners can avoid the costs of outsourcing these tasks and also earn additional income, thereby increasing their annual net income by $3,000-6,000 per year.

Autonomous Vehicles for Mobility Access: How Self-Driving Cars Can Reduce Transportation Expenses for Middle-Class Arizonans

ASU and the city of Tempe will collaboratively develop public-private partnerships making use of autonomous shuttles to provide low-cost mobility and transit services for middle-income families in Tempe. This project will target several key population centers in the city to provide quality, cost-efficient mobility where it is currently absent. This is expected to decrease annual transportation expenditures by up to $5,000 per household.

See all 10 teams here.

Schmidt Futures is a philanthropic initiative, founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, that seeks to improve societal outcomes through the thoughtful development of emerging science and technologies that can benefit humanity. To realize this vision, Schmidt Futures uses a broad set of tools — including gifts, grants, investments, and startup activity — for charitable, educational, and commercial efforts with a public purpose. The Schmidt Futures initiative brings together the efforts of various charitable and non-charitable entities to improve their potential impact by making diverse types of capital available to supported efforts.

Article courtesy of ASU Office of University Initiatives.

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ASU Lodestar Center offers nationally recognized training to boost nonprofits' efficiency

ASU's Lodestar Center offers new training to help nonprofits be more efficient.
December 18, 2018

Grant from governor's office helps organizations learn best practices for recruiting, keeping volunteers

The lifeblood of any nonprofit organization is its volunteers — those people who gladly donate their time for a cause that stirs their passion.

Thanks to a new grant from the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith, and Family, Arizona State University is helping nonprofits in the state to better manage — and appreciate — their volunteers. The ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation won the funding last summer to offer the nationally recognized “Service Enterprise Initiative” program. Ten state nonprofits are wrapping up the training now, and the center is accepting applications for the next cohort to begin in February.

“It shows our volunteers that we’re really trying,” said Elaine Starks, executive director of Power Paws, a Scottsdale-based organization that trains assistance dogs. The nonprofit has about 30 volunteers and aims to place about 12 dogs a year with people who have diabetes or post-traumatic stress disorder or who need mobility assistance. Volunteers foster the dogs while they are being trained.

“Some of our volunteers have been with us for 10 years, and we want to show them that we’re making an investment in them and recognizing them.”

The grant allows Lodestar to offer the program at a cost of only $430 for the nonprofits, which can then begin the national certification process by the Points of Light Foundation The foundation was created in 1990 in response to President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 inaugural address, which compared service by volunteers to a “thousand points of light.”, a nationwide organization that works to increase and improve volunteer service. The Service Enterprise Initiative training is based on research that pinpointed 10 practices that nonprofits should incorporate to be most efficient, such as standardizing training, setting up a tracking system and communicating clear expectations.

The training helps nonprofits of any size to become more effective, according to Cynthia Thiede, director of professional development education for the ASU Lodestar Center’s Nonprofit Management Institute. The center is in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

“They all want to do better at managing their volunteers, and they want a higher retention rate,” she said.

The Points of Light Foundation estimates that, after the training, organizations can expect a return of $3 to $6 for every $1 invested in effective volunteer engagement. The research found that nonprofits that engage volunteers in productive ways are equally as effective as agencies without volunteers, but at almost half the median budget.

Starks started to revamp the volunteer procedures at Power Paws after she was promoted to executive director a year ago, and she said the Service Enterprise Initiative training has improved that process.

“It helped me to see that we needed to provide our volunteers with more structure,” she said. “To have an invested volunteer, you need to give them an outline of your expectations.”

Previously, Power Paws volunteers had to agree to a two-year commitment. Now, in the new system, dogs will attend training more frequently, reducing the commitment to one year, and volunteers will get a better picture throughout the process of how close their dog is to being placed. In addition, other volunteers will provide short-term respite to the dog-fostering volunteers.

“Our volunteer program was put together 17 years ago, and it needed to be freshened up,” Starks said.

 The Maryvale Revitalization Corporation, which manages 2,500 volunteers a year, works to build collaboration among non-profits, faith-based communities, government initiatives, schools and local businesses in West Phoenix. Jaime Lyn Gonzales, the director of programming, said that the training included a valuable "diagnosis" of the agency.

 "Much of what we believe about our vision and practices for engaging human capital proved to be true, while some areas of improvement were highlighted," she said. "We appreciated seeing and embracing these, as many of those opportunities aligned with improvements in practices and policies that were already in development. This also provided our team and board of directors with the validation to move forward in these investments."

Pat Bell-Demers, executive director of the Sonoran Arts League, said the training revealed a lot of “aha moments.”

“It was an eye-opener to get through the diagnostic and uncover those weaknesses and those strengths,” she said.

The Sonoran Arts League, which is based in Cave Creek and has more than 400 volunteers, promotes arts in the community with exhibits, classes, artists-in-residence, studio tours, veterans’ programs and a gallery.

One of the training sessions teaches nonprofits how to calculate the return on investment for volunteers’ work.

“Being able to identify the value that these individuals bring is priceless,” Bell-Demers said. “They open up doors, bring us relationships and help further our mission.”

The training helped the league set up a strategic action plan, she said.

“Boards of directors come and go all the time, but this plan is timeless,” she said.

Top image by Pixabay

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now