High Chairs

Endowed chairs matter not just because they allow professors academic freedom; they also help universities honor donors, as well as recruit and retain faculty

By Lilledeshan Bose

From top left to bottom right: Endowed Chairs Michael Alexander, Sharon Walker, Juan Felipe Herrera, Clifford Trafzer, Pashaura Singh, and Ring Cardé
“It was like opening a door as big as the sky.”

That’s how Juan Felipe Herrera, former U.S. Poet Laureate and emeritus professor of creative writing, described receiving UC Riverside’s Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing. It’s a bold statement, but one that reflects the importance of an endowed chair for faculty members.

What is an Endowed Chair?

“An endowed chair is one of the most important and honored spots in higher education, because it fosters academic excellence and recognizes superior faculty,” Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox explained. Established with significant donor gifts to an academic area, an endowed chair provides invaluable financial support to a professor for research, teaching, or service activities.

In November 2016, the campus launched the public phase of Living the Promise: The Campaign for UC Riverside. The campaign’s goal is to raise $300 million by 2020. These gifts will aid students, create faculty support, fund research and university programs, and build new infrastructure around campus.

They will also fund endowed chairs. UCR currently has 55 chairs endowed by donors — 18 of which have been created in the past three years. Wilcox aims to have 75 endowed chairs by the end of the fundraising campaign. “I am confident we will make it,” he said.

Why do Endowed Chairs Matter?

UCR established its first endowed chair in 1980, but the distinction has existed since the days of ancient Rome. Endowed chairs are important tools used by institutions of higher education to recruit and retain faculty such as Herrera, who came to UCR in 2005 to accept the endowed chair named for former chancellor Tomás Rivera.

Endowed chairs also have an impact on students. Professor Clifford Trafzer, who holds the Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs, said the Costo funds have allowed him to recruit Native American students with advanced degrees. “Anthony Madrigal, for example, is the first Cahuilla person to earn a Ph.D. in Native American history. I know that (Cahuilla scholar and philanthropist) Rupert Costo would be so thrilled to know that local Cahuilla people and other Southern California Indians are earning the Ph.D.,” Trafzer said.

Propelling Research

Endowed chairs also allow faculty to propel their research forward by giving them the autonomy to make swift and concrete decisions. “It’s great when a student comes to you and you can say, ‘Great idea, let’s do it,’” said Sharon Walker, interim dean of the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering, who holds the John Babbage Chair in Environmental Engineering. “That’s the intellectual freedom that the Babbage Chair has given me.”

The flexibility of having endowed funds is key, added Ring Cardé, a distinguished professor of entomology who holds the A.M. Boyce Endowed Chair. “(It) allows me to send students and postdocs to scientific meetings and to explore speculative areas of research that fall outside of the range of those funded by my current grants. These pilot projects, in turn, can jumpstart entirely new areas of research.”

Diversity of Knowledge

Having a set of endowed chairs in diverse areas of research has other benefits. “In a very concrete sense, the purpose of a university is simply to create opportunities for diverse and knowledgeable people to get to know one another,” said Michael Alexander, associate professor of religious studies, who holds the Maimonides Chair in Jewish Studies. “The establishment of this chair … means that UCR has made a long-term commitment to include Jewry and Judaism as part of the conversation.”

Pashaura Singh, professor of religious studies and the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies, said his endowment was created to build academic strength and visibility in matters pertaining to Sikh culture and religion. “Proceeds from this gift have dramatically increased our capacity for teaching, scholarship, and outreach in Sikh Studies.”

To find out more about establishing an endowed chair, contact UCR Associate Vice Chancellor for Development Hieu Nguyen at hieu.nguyen@ucr.edu.