CELTSS hosts annual Distinguished Faculty Awards event: Recipients speak about strengthening the community

Catherine Dignam, professor and chair of the chemistry and food science department, received the Award for Excellence in Teaching. (Thomas Maye/THE GATEPOST)

The Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship and Service (CELTSS) honored four distinguished members of the faculty Nov. 19 in the McCarthy Center Forum. 

Each received a Distinguished Faculty Award for Excellence for their contributions to the Framingham State community.

Catherine Dignam, professor and chair of the chemistry and food science department, received the Award for Excellence in Teaching. 

Suzanne Neubauer, retired professor of food and nutrition and director of the Coordinated Program in Dietetics, received the Award for Excellence in Advising/Mentoring.

Erika Schneider, professor of art history, received the Award for Excellence in Scholarship & Creative Activity.

Robert Donohue, professor of psychology and president of the Framingham chapter of the Massachusetts State College Association (MSCA), received the Award for Excellence in Professional Service. 

Director of CELTSS Jon Huibregtse introduced each recipient and welcomed them to the podium to speak to their fellow faculty members on this year’s theme – “strengthening the community.” 

Dignam began her speech by emphasizing the “symbiotic relationship” of strength she has with the community, explaining all her contributions were only possible due to the support she has received from the community as well as CELTSS.

Having come to FSU primarily as a researcher, Dignam said she ran into “roadblocks” early on in her research program, which caused her to “shift gears” and focus more on teaching.

“I took all of my energy, and I threw it into teaching,” she said. 

She described an upper-level course she developed “from the ground up,” which gave students more choices over what they were able to study and how they could demonstrate what they’ve learned. 

Dignam showed a picture of a group of her students and their display at the 2018 Science on State Street event. She explained they opted to present the topics they had chosen to learn in her class to the community, rather than hold a typical final presentation in that class.

She said the experience made her realize that the norms she was educated under, to which she had forced herself to conform throughout her career, did not represent the best way to teach.

“I can’t keep forcing students to conform to those norms, and I can’t continue to evaluate them by those norms,” she explained. 

“That realization has also transformed my desire to listen to students and to try to change the University so that it’s a more hospitable place for them,” she said.

She added that FSU should be a place “in which [students] can thrive based on their terms, not mine or some old antiquated terms that I’m just familiar with because I had to adhere to them.”

Last year, Dignam successfully submitted a grant application to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which resulted in a $1,000,000 award to the University. FSU intends to use the funds to redevelop its STEM pathways to help students from underrepresented backgrounds succeed. 

Neubauer spoke next, beginning her speech by saying she has mentored over 700 registered dietitians in her time.

“If you looked at the number of registered dietitians in the state of Massachusetts, that’s roughly 30% of them,” she added.

“So that’s either very cool, or very scary,” she joked. 

A registered dietitian (RD) herself, she spoke about mentors who were influential in her own career path.

Neubauer said she met one of her mentors, Susan Nicholson, during her dietetic internship at a hospital in Houston, Texas. She explained that Nicholson “took me under her wing.

“I was from the North. That was in the South. It was very different. … I was homesick and she was just really great,” said Neubauer.

Another mentor she spoke about was Jeanette Earnest, whom Neubauer said she met while working as a clinical dietitian at the V.A. in Birmingham, Alabama. 

She described how Earnest, then “Miss Wyatt,” would always spend her breaks in the cafeteria sitting with people from departments that were not her own. 

“What I learned from her is … you interact with people from all different departments and you need to get to know them,” Neubauer said.

She explained she brought this wisdom with her to the community of Framingham State.  

Neubauer then spoke about her work in the University’s Coordinated Program in Dietetics, which she became the director of during the early 1980s. 

This program combines both the coursework and internships necessary to take the national Registration Examination for Dieticians. Passing this exam is required to receive an RD credential.

Neubauer emphasized that FSU graduates of the program have “a great pass rate.

She explained, “According to the program for registered dietitian exams … our first-time pass rate is 95%.”

In concluding her speech, Neubauer remarked, “I think that if you want to be a good mentor, you just need to look back to who made a difference for you, and it was probably somebody who listened.”

Schneider then walked up to the podium to speak about her research of artwork and the projects she has published.

She began by recognizing the support she received from FSU as well as CELTSS, which allowed her to acquire travel and research grants that helped further her projects.

“What I hope to show in some of these pieces that I’ve worked on, the publications I’ve had, is … how the community has actually helped me,” she said.

“I couldn’t do this without my colleagues and their discussions, and I really appreciate that so much,” she added. 

She said her first published project at FSU, “Talisman for the Symbolist Movement: Puvis de Chavannes’ ‘Hope,’” was based on a graduate paper she had already written.

Through a connection from her faculty advisor, she said she was able to submit the project to a conference in Oxford, England, which then led to its publication.

While Schneider said she mostly focuses on 19th century American art, she described an “inspiring” conversation she had with her colleague, Tim McDonald, about contemporary street artist Shepard Fairey.

The conversation influenced her to research Fairey’s work and eventually publish her project, “The Politics of Tagging: Shepard Fairey’s Obama.”

During the course of what she described as the longest project she has worked on at FSU – “The Representation of the Struggling Artist in America, 1800–1865” – Schneider said she had the opportunity to give several conference papers, funded by CELTSS, which led her to gain important connections.

One connection eventually became her sponsor for a Fulbright fellowship, which she said allowed her to teach American art in the Netherlands and continue her research there.

Schneider said the experience of researching, going to conferences, and eventually receiving publications “gives me a sense of satisfaction and invigorates my teaching.”

She added, “This is something I bring back to the community and the classroom as well.”

Donohue spoke last and discussed the ways in which faculty service can be used as a means to strengthen the community, and that it should not be ignored for scholarship. 

He began with a remark that many faculty members of his generation were trained to think of scholarship, or research, as “if not the first priority, perhaps the only priority.”

He explained, “Being trained by research psychologists, I was told, ‘You’re going to have to invest some time in your teaching and advising and it’ll take away from your scholarship. But for God’s sake, don’t do any service. That is a dead end.”

Donohue disagrees with this notion, saying instead he has found most of the service roles he’s had at Framingham State to be “personally fulfilling.”

Furthermore, “At a school the size of Framingham State, an individual faculty member, or a few working together, can have a great deal of impact on the community,” he said.

Donohue explained it was through his and professor of biology Brandi Van Roo’s efforts that the daycare center on campus reopened in 2008 as the FSU Early Childhood Center.

“Dr. Van Roo and I were upset that the childcare center on campus closed. We organized, we advocated, and we were successful in getting the daycare back,” he added.

Donohue, who announced his time as a leader of the Framingham chapter of the MSCA is coming to an end, said he plans to focus his advocacy on challenges the FSU community faces.

“I believe the two biggest issues facing Framingham State are the continued shifting of the financial burden of higher education onto our students and their families, and the racism and other forms of marginalization that members of our community experience,” he said.

In presenting the first issue, he explained, “we need to serve the FSU community, present and future, by mobilizing political pressure on our elected officials to make public higher education publicly, not privately funded.”

Regarding the second issue, he explained, “Framingham State’s racial and equity environment is our students’ learning environment – and fear and alienation are not conducive to learning. 

“Faculty engaging in improving the racial and equity climate at Framingham State provide a great service to Framingham State – and that service needs to be recognized as mission critical to the University,” he added.