Ursula Shepherd - Acceptance Speech

2011 Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year
Ursula Shepherd
Associate Professor of University Honors and Biology
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Thank you to CASE and Carnegie for this great award and also to Phi Beta Kappa and TIAA for their support. I am deeply humbled, honored and inspired to stand here among all of you who are so dedicated to education and to teaching! At this time when higher education, and most especially, public higher education, is under assault in this country, it is of the greatest importance for us to gather and to celebrate our calling.

I was more than a bit nervous about what to say here beyond thank you, so I went to the Internet and typed in "giving an acceptance speech." There were a dozen ways to accept an Oscar. Now that's useful for most of us! But the instructions were: be personal, be yourself and tell a story.

And after all, teachers are, at base, storytellers. So, as I thought about this honor and what I could say, my first thoughts were about how odd a journey it has been. I never, ever, intended to be a biologist or a teacher. I wanted to be a great novelist, a doctor, a lawyer-never a college professor. It's an accidental journey I won't take time to tell you about, but I will include one secret-I flunked out of college at 19, and the course that was the last straw was biology. Yet here I am.

I began to look back over my life at who might have most impacted my teaching. There were many, but I have to mention Miss Cavenaugh, my fifth-grade English teacher. She was fierce and fair, and even though I was only in fifth grade, I knew this woman was a deeply egalitarian person. She taught in a public school in San Francisco in a district that included both ghetto and pretty upscale neighborhoods. And in my class, there were several students we would now call underprivileged-poor, black or Chinese-the people some teachers overlooked as already lost. Miss Cavenaugh was having none of it. Every student in her class would be, and I do mean would be, able to diagram any sentence that could be written and would be able to speak and write the King's English. She would see to it that anyone who wanted to go on would be ready. Period.

And there is the man whose work led me to pursue a PhD in midlife—Dr. James Findley. I came to UNM with the plan to take one class in biology, and Jim taught that first class. By the end of the semester, I was applying for graduate school. In some ways, I can't tell you exactly how he did what he did. Basically, he shared his utter passion for biology. He took us into the field and showed us the wonder around us. As I was starting my first faculty position, he gave me a piece of his wisdom: to be a great teacher you have to be part actor, and you have to be willing to make something of a fool of yourself. You need to take risks. Great advice, which I often, maybe mostly, forget. But like each of you here today, I keep trying.

So there they are—two fine teachers who taught me a few life lessons. At any rate, I have learned that for most of us, fine teachers are made, not born—so what makes them?

  • A few important failures
  • Role models
  • Great students
  • A few great administrators
  • And friends and family who support your efforts and forgive all the times you have said, "I just can't. I have to work."

Since I joined the honors program at University of New Mexico, I've been graced with all of these:

  • Extraordinary students who sometimes stun me with their efforts, their determination and their life stories. Students like the one who said, at every challenge, "I'm in" or the one who wanted to do two projects, not one, on our research field trip or the young man who said more than once, "Yes m'am, I will write it again." These are the people who will take up the mantle and face the world we have built for them. I trust them completely with our futures.
  • Great peers and colleagues, who continue to guide, train and support me. This award is for all of you.
  • Administrators who have provided the support for me to take risks, live with the failures and keep going. Our honors director, Dr. Otero, is one of the most positive, go-to-it administrator/ manager I have ever seen. And our new Provost Abdallah is a strong advocate for faculty; thank you for your presence here today.

As we leave this afternoon, I hope we are all reminded of those who have played a part in our accomplishments, and remember that we are each a part in the long chain of culture. I hope we can use this rare award to speak out for higher education and help to find the ways to keep it accessible for a broad range of students. Finally, congratulations to each of my fellow recipients—both the state and national winners of the U.S. Professor of the Year.