Dean of University of Maine’s Honors College, Charlie Slavin knows first hand how private support from alumni and friends can provide students with extraordinary learning opportunities.
Donations from individuals have been used to endow two popular and informative Honors courses: “Currents and Contexts,” in which students explore current local, national and international problems and issues, and “A Cultural Odyssey,” which focuses on the campus’ many cultural events including art shows, poetry readings and musical performances.
Private gifts funded renovations to the first floor of Colvin Hall, one of two Honors residences, to re-establish the Thomson Honors Center which consists of classrooms, a library, reading rooms and administrative offices.
Individual contributions also support the “Honors Read” initiative, where incoming Honors College students are provided with a book chosen each year by current Honors College students. The text, which the new students read during the summer, serves to introduce them to the Honors curriculum and becomes the basis for class discussions over their two-year “Civilizations” sequence.
Finally, private gifts provide travel opportunities for Honors College students including an annual Spring Break trip to Washington, D.C., and the National Collegiate Honors Council’s annual national conference.
“Many of my colleagues around the country are envious that we are able to bring 24 students to the Council each year — all on the basis of private giving,” says Charlie.
He himself is an ardent supporter of the Honors College, as well as other UMaine initiatives and programs, not only because he knows his gifts make a difference to students’ education, but also because he believes he has an obligation to contribute.
“My feelings about philanthropy come from an understanding of my place in the world and the things I have the ability to do. There are issues in the world that need to be addressed and, those of us who have the ability need to make efforts in those directions.”
Also prompting his support are the strong feelings he holds about the critical role the University plays in the state of Maine.
“I’m committed to the work we’re doing here. Public higher education is a vital part of society’s fabric and providing access to that education is important.”
Charlie started out at UMaine in 1984 as a math professor, but decided to switch gears and become involved with Honors 11 years ago when it was still the Honors Program. One of the oldest such programs in the country, it transitioned into the Honors College in 2002; the College now has approximately 650 students and involves more than 100 faculty from all five degree-granting colleges.
A number of reasons prompted Charlie’s move to Honors. First, he liked its emphasis on interdisciplinary studies. Early in his UMaine career, he had participated in a multi-disciplinary collaborative project that included 24 faculty members from art to zoology. And, over the years, he continued to be intrigued by the idea of bringing people together from different perspectives, disciplines and professions to engage in imaginative and exciting conversations.
“Interdisciplinary work is all about bringing multiple perspectives to important questions and ideas,” he says.
He also liked the idea that Honors students were required to conduct in-depth research on a topic related to their major and then write a thesis. “Having written a thesis as an undergraduate, I understood what a transforming experience it could be. Often for the first time, the thesis student takes ownership of a substantial research question or creative challenge, and brings it to fruition. This is particularly rewarding for undergraduates, and often sets the tone for their future endeavors.”
As a member of about a dozen thesis committees each year, he also learns something new. “Each year I’m reading theses and then engaging in conversations with students doing poetry, biochemistry, education, engineering and more. These students have produced impressive work in their disciplines, and I get to learn about things I’ve never even heard about before. I learn so much more from my students than they ever learn from me.”
The Honors College enables students to broaden and deepen their undergraduate education by going beyond the boundaries of their discipline, exploring diverse academic areas, and challenging each other in a supportive intellectual environment, Charlie says.
“English majors read about quantum auto mechanics and engineering students read Dante and it’s important that we do that. Intellectual risk taking is what makes Honors so exciting.”
And, because students – and faculty — are involved only because they want to be, “the energy level and interest in the Honors College is high.”
For many students, Charlie says, the Honors College experience ends up changing their lives as they “look at lots of different texts, ideas and critical perspectives and think deeply about them.
“We see incredible differences in students between the time they enter the Honors College and the time they graduate. They mature both intellectually and in a worldly sense; so much of education happens outside of the classroom. I’m lucky that I often get to see students over this entire journey.”
The Honors College has made astounding progress since it began over seven decades ago with a handful of students, and Charlie hopes it will continue to evolve. His plans include renovating Balentine Hall, another Honors residence; implementing a math/science sequence in the Honors curriculum; and establishing more travel opportunities and thesis fellowships for Honors students.
“There are a lot of things to be worked on. We’ve done some really cool stuff since becoming a college in 2002, but there are always new challenges; that’s what makes my job so much fun. We’re looking forward to our 75th anniversary in 2010 – stay tuned for more changes aimed to benefit our students.”
The Honors College isn’t Charlie’s only focus. Spending time with his wife, Nancy, and five-year-old son, Sam, whom they adopted from Kazakhstan, also are priorities for the busy administrator.
“Sam is a great little guy, he’s a lot of fun,” says Charlie. “Since he’s only been in the U.S. for a short time, he’s still figuring things out and exploring things that are new to him, but that aren’t new to a child who’s grown up here. That makes for an experience that’s exciting, sometimes challenging, and always rewarding.”
Image Description: Honors College Dean Charlie Slavin
Sandra Blake-Leonard ’65, who, along with her late husband Ted Leonard, were instrumental in bringing the University of Maine Museum of Art to downtown Bangor, has established a lecture series at the museum in memory of Ted.
By hosting artists, scholars and speakers to lead discussions about the exhibits at the University of Maine Museum of Art (UMMA), the Leonard Lecture Series will provide an opportunity for the community to better understand the artwork and gain insight into the artist’s inspiration and processes, according to UMMA Director George Kinghorn.
“It will allow us to greatly enhance our educational offerings to the community, and in addition, cultivate new audiences for the museum and provide a deeper understanding of the art,” he said, adding that he plans to bring in at least two lecturers each year.
“The expectation is that speakers would make a formal presentation in a lecture format and then conduct more intimate informal talks in the gallery. This series will provide attendees the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives and, in many cases, have a dialogue with a lecturer. ”
Praising Sandra for her support, George said she “sees the importance of the arts in enriching our daily lives.”
The only institution owned by the citizens of Maine that houses a permanent art collection of paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture, the UMMA consists of more than 6,500 original works including those by Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth.
Sandra said she and Ted, a Bangor attorney who also graduated from UMaine in 1965, were committed to bringing the University’s art collection to Bangor so it would be more accessible to residents. They led the fundraising campaign to relocate the museum, and in 2002 their hard work paid off. The UMMA was relocated to Norumbega Hall, an historic downtown building. Today, it has taken on a new role as a regional fine arts center.
“We thought the art collection really belonged to the people of Maine and that they should be able to enjoy it and everything the museum has to offer,” said Sandra, a longtime patron of the arts. “Now that it’s located in downtown, it truly is a public museum.”
The UMaine museum also has proven to be a wonderful economic development tool, according to Sandra, an investment broker who is active in community affairs and serves on a number of committees including the University of Maine Board of Visitors, the University of Maine President’s Development Council, and the University of Maine Foundation.
“It’s another reason for people to come to downtown Bangor,” she said, recalling that previous exhibits of works by Ansel Adams and Maine printmakers “brought in people from everywhere.
“Cultural tourism is definitely on the rise these days,” she added.
Determined to make a lasting gift in memory of Ted, Sandra said the idea of a lecture series appealed to her because “it could continue in perpetuity and not be tied to a particular place.
“If the museum should ever have a new home, it won’t matter. The lecture series will go on.”
An art collector herself, Sandra said she and Ted enjoyed traveling to galleries around the state where they would find works by young, up-and-coming Maine artists. They amassed a deeply personal collection of paintings, photographs and prints.
Everyone needs to experience art, according to Sandra. “It’s really representative of our collective history. It’s always art that tells the most about people, whether it’s cave paintings, pottery or music. Art is wrapped up in the whole identity of humankind and who we are.”
Image Description: Sandra '65 Blake-Leonard and Ted '65 Leonard