A Requiem for Academics

The death toll from COVID-19 continues to grow among professors. How will universities cope?

April 15, 2020
 
Rodney Moore
David Driskell

One of the professors was a famous artist who transformed and raised the profile of African American art. Another spent decades steeped in the art of making music. The third gentleman was more focused on the art of the deal, or the business of professional selling.

They traveled different paths in life, but they shared a sad fate -- all three died recently from health complications related to COVID-19, the latest victims of the pandemic that has already caused so much upheaval in American higher ed.

David C. Driskell, Distinguished University Professor, Emeritus, at the University of Maryland at College Park, passed away April 1. His colleagues said he was “recognized worldwide for his scholarship and expertise in African American art” but remained generous and kind. He was 88.

Truby Bernard Clayton, chairperson of music education at Wiley College in Texas, where he taught for 42 years, also died April 1. Students described him as “a caring professor who challenged them beyond their limits.” He was 75.

George Gannage, an assistant teaching professor of marketing and assistant director of the Center for Professional Selling at Ball State University in Indiana, died April 6. He was a “consummate students’ professor” and known for being charming, witty and a pretty great dresser. He was 63.

There are many more academics whose deaths have not been publicized and whose life stories are still unknown. There will undoubtedly be more deaths as the pandemic continues. The current moment demands an appraisal of the victims as individuals and, perhaps more importantly, as a collective.

It’s always tragic when a professor dies unexpectedly. It can mean the loss of a valued faculty member, a respected colleague, or a favorite instructor or beloved mentor. If the deceased was a rock star in his field or a leading public intellectual, as were several professors who died from coronavirus last month, the loss can feel even more consequential. It can set an institution back if the late academic was a font of historical knowledge, or doing groundbreaking research, or possessed unique and irreplaceable talents.

These various scenarios raise troubling questions. What happens if professors start dying at higher rates than average, at more universities than usual?

Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior program officer and researcher at the American Association of University Professors, says a large number of deaths, particularly among older, more experienced professors -- as has been the case so far -- can become problematic.

"The governance of institutions depends on individuals who had institutional history and knowledge about the culture of the institution," he says. "So many things in institutional governance depend on cultural aspects more than on written rules. There’s a lot of governance culture for how decisions are made. Certainly, older faculty that have institutional history are important for maintaining that."

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, noted that older academics tend to have worked with more people in different disciplines and at different institutions and to have served on advisory and academic committees. They've also more likely to have mentored younger colleagues, or worked with people from very different geographical or social backgrounds, or from different types of institutions or in various stages of their careers.

"Academics tend not to do that work until they’re established," he says. So when they die, "you’re losing these networking roles and interstitial activity, people who work at the interstices of different disciplines and different types of institutions. You’re losing the benefit of years of networking. It's a terrible thing to lose. These are the people who are both the bridges and the glue of not just institutions, but all sorts of identification that people have. The longer you’re around, the more networks you have -- you're not only the person building bridges but someone who is the bridge -- and the more you can hold an institution and people together, that’s the glue.

"It’s not just the notion that you’re losing a senior scholar, you’re also losing these related functions, and that's bad for the disciplines and bad for the institutions."

Grossman points to David Driskell, whom he had met, as an example.

"He's someone who has been involved in academic work from many different angles. He was someone who talked to historians. The more angles he was involved in, the more he played a networking role between people from many different disciplines and different worlds."

An Incomparable Talent

The magnitude of the death of Driskell is apparent in how friends and colleagues at the University of Maryland describe the multifaceted art historian, art collector, curator and scholar: “a giant in the art world,” “a trailblazer,” “a legendary artist.”

Their sense of loss is woven throughout lengthy and admiring appreciations posted on the websites of the Collge of Arts and Humanities and the center established in his honor in 2001. The David C. Driskell Center for the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora, which is part of the college, exhibits the work of artists at all stages of their careers and houses Driskell’s archives, letters, photos, handwritten notes and catalogs.

"They offer a glimpse into his life, work and interactions and close friendships with major artists" such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Georgia O’Keeffe and a long list of others, the posting says.

"It’s multilayered, in many ways," Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, said of the loss. "David had really been a visionary leader when he was a faculty member here. He really diversified the faculty in the art department in exceptional ways and had brought in really outstanding people, so he had that legacy that he left of people who were part of our faculty. He knew every African American artist in his era, and he had corresponded with all of them, and so his archives are just rich. Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett. I mean, you name them, he had corresponded with them.

"And David also had a wonderful, almost photographic memory. So he was just kind of a repository of history and he told stories in this graphically, wonderfully detailed way. So that’s something we’ll miss, just his living knowledge of people and events and African American history," Dill said. "His talent, the works that he produced, the ways that he trained people and his presence -- and he was still a very visible presence on the campus -- so I think all of that will be greatly missed."

Driskell was widely credited for transforming the field of African American art.

"He played a critical role in bringing awareness to the art of African American artists at a time when these artists were overlooked," the tribute notes. "His work made it clear that African American art is essential to the American art canon."

Curlee Holton, executive director of the Driskell Center, says Driskell had the ability to see beyond his own artistic achievement.

"It wasn’t just his talent. It was his humanity that was transformative," Holton notes in the tribute. "He believed that everyone was valuable and that their unique vision as expressed in their art, should be seen and studied."

Driskell joined the faculty of UMD's art department in 1977 and was chairman from 1978 to 1983. He was named Distinguished University Professor of Art in 1995. He taught and mentored students and helped them go on to successful careers, according to the posting. He also influenced the hiring of African American artists as professors in the department.

“He said that some of his happiest years were teaching and making connections with students,” the posting says.

Robert E. Steele, former director of the Driskell Center, said Driskell had a knack for nurturing students' artistic skills.

“David could recognize talent in students and do what he could to promote these students, challenge them, actualize their artistic capabilities,” Steele, who is also former associate dean for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, says in the appreciation.

According to the center, Driskell’s paintings and prints appeared in solo and group exhibitions across the United States, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Several of his works are included in major collections at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, and the High Museum of Art.

"His groundbreaking exhibition 'Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950' has been a foundation for the field since 1976," the appreciation says, adding that "Only a handful of exhibitions have shared the same longevity in the discourse of art history and collecting."

Driskell was one of 12 people awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2000 by President Clinton. It was one of many honors and awards he received during his lifetime. In 2005, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta established the David C. Driskell Prize, the first national award to honor and celebrate contributions to the field of African American art and art history.

Decades of Dedication

Truby Clayton (at right) was neither nationally renowned nor widely celebrated, but he made a lasting impression nonetheless on members of his social and professional circles. Nowhere was this more apparent than at Wiley College, a historically black liberal arts institution affiliated with the United Methodist Church, where Clayton spent his entire college teaching career.

Wiley administrators ordered the college’s flag lowered to half-staff on April 1 and said it would stay lowered for 42 days to mourn the passing of Clayton and mark the 42 years he served the institution.

Clayton leaves behind a “legacy of dedication and selfless service,” a tribute posted on the college’s Facebook page said. “Although his passing is a devastating loss to all who knew him, he will forever be a Wileyite.”

Four days before Clayton’s death, the university had issued a statement informing the campus that a faculty member had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to the Marshall News Messenger. The statement came with “within hours of Harrison County officials confirming the county’s first COVID-19 case,” the newspaper reported. The college’s announcement of Clayton’s death also came “within hours of the county confirming its first coronavirus-related death, though county officials would also not confirm if Clayton was that patient.” The death reported by the county was of 75-year-old male, the same age as Clayton.

Wiley’s president did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment. Clayton’s family members could not be reached.

“We are not at liberty to discuss the medical condition of any of our faculty, staff or students,” the university’s spokeswoman Maya Brown said in a statement to the Marshall News Messenger. She said the faculty member diagnosed with the coronavirus was not named in the university statement “out of respect for the privacy of the individual and their family.”

Clayton started his career as a music specialist and English teacher in the public school system in Walton County, Georgia. He joined Wiley’s faculty in 1978 and served on numerous academic committees over the years, according to his obituary, which also said Clayton was guided by “spiritual endeavors and academic pursuits.” He was also regional director of Alpha Kappa Mu, a national collegiate honor society.

“Dr. Clayton gave selflessly to the Wiley family, and we greatly appreciate his service and commitment to this institution. His students always described him as a caring professor who challenged them beyond their limits and always encouraged independent thinking,” the university's Facebook posting said.

An Easy Sell

Although George Gannage was expert in the business of selling, he wasn’t a hard sell personally. He won over people easily with humor and wit.

Gannage joined the marketing department of Ball State’s Miller College of Business in 2017 after previously teaching at Kennesaw State University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Maryland University College, according to Ball State’s provost. His teaching specialties included consumer behavior and professional selling.

“George Gannage was a consummate students’ professor in the marketing classroom,” Russ Wahlers, chair of the marketing department, said in an email. “His ability to engage with both students and faculty colleagues at a high level was unmatched. George’s friendship, wit, charm, impeccable attire and appreciation for a good cigar will be sorely missed.”

Gannage died “after suffering from a severe respiratory virus,” Susana Rivera-Mills, the university’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, wrote in an internal email to colleagues announcing Gannage’s death. His family said lab tests later confirmed he had COVID-19, Wahlers said.

Gannage also served as adviser to the BSU Collegiate Chapter of the American Marketing Association and Pi Sigma Epsilon Sales and Marketing Fraternity, according to Rivera-Mills, who noted that he “worked tirelessly, successfully coaching many of the center’s sales teams, who won numerous awards in national student sales competitions under his mentorship.”

He will be remembered for his collegiality, sense of humor and “sartorial expertise”, Rivera-Mills wrote. “He was admired and respected by both his students and faculty colleagues.”

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

 
+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top