Vassar Today

All Hail the Retirees!

By Debbie Swartz

Every year, Vassar says goodbye to retiring professors who have brought excitement into the classroom and offered their expertise and dedication to students for decades. In this issue, we honor several faculty members who have retired this year and ask, “What’s next?”

Jim Challey
Senior Lecturer in Physics

Though Jim Challey retired at the end of the spring 2013 semester, he’s in the Retreat so often, one would never know it.

“I’m still involved in the life of the campus,” he says.

A former senior lecturer in physics and former director of the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program, Challey continues to serve as a member of the Vassar Pre-Med Advising Committee, which helps alumnae/i navigate the arduous task of applying to medical school, and is advising seniors on their STS theses.

Challey is also busy off-campus as chair of the Town of Poughkeepsie Zoning Board of Appeals; president of Friends of Peach Hill, a nonprofit that maintains a large public park. He serves as a member of the board of Springside Landscape Restoration, which maintains the grounds of Matthew Vassar’s historic summer home, and the Poughkeepsie Day Nursery, one of the oldest daycare centers in state (his son went there as a preschooler).

Challey, who arrived at Vassar in 1973, is heartened by the send-off he received from students and alumnae/i who decided to use the STS departmental newsletter to share his impact on their lives. Chris Young ’91, for instance, recalled the time he saw a stranger walk out of Challey’s office with a packet of papers. Turns out, the materials were part of the science curriculum for the Poughkeepsie public school system that Challey had helped to develop. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a great thing to do,’” Young says. “To me, this exemplifies his core quality as a genuinely caring man.”

While his former students offer tribute to Challey, he says there’s much to be admired about them and he’s always glad to hear where they’ve landed. “One of a teacher’s greatest joys is hearing from past students about what they’re doing,” he says.

As for retirement, he says he and spouse Janet Gray, still a professor of psychology at the college, plan to travel. “We’ve got all kinds of lists of what we’d like to do,” Challey says. Chief among the options are to visit Challey’s son, Darren, and four grandchildren in Seattle, WA, as well as Gray’s son, Geoffrey, who lives in China.

Nancy Willard
Lecturer in English

An award-winning poet, novelist, and essayist, Nancy Willard spent the past 47 years enjoying her role as an educator.

A professor in Vassar’s English Department, Willard says the students at Vassar—well-read, intelligent, and open to new ideas—would be a tremendous asset to any professor.

“That was one of the joys of teaching here,” she says.

Willard, who retired at the end of spring 2013, always sought ways to make the learning experience enjoyable and unforgettable and aimed to incorporate literature from a range of sources, in light of the varied backgrounds of her students.

In one class, she asked students to write a story in the form of a letter. In another, students had to pen directions to a fictitious country.

One of her most memorable courses, Willard says, was Medieval Text and Tapestry, which she co-taught with Tina Kane, a tapestry restorer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To give the students a real feeling for the beauty and intricacies of a tapestry—photos didn’t do them justice—Kane brought in mini looms, and each student created a small tapestry to complement the medieval text Willard was teaching.

“They were delighted by it,” she says, noting that the class concluded with a visit to The Cloisters—a branch of the Met devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe—to view authentic period tapestries.

“It was a hands-on way to teach,” Willard says. “A smaller class allows you to do that.”

Though her honors have included a Newbery Medal and a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, she says it’s her time teaching and her beloved students that she treasures most.

“The students always came first,” she says.

Willard—who lives one block from Vassar’s campus—says she’s still writing poetry and children’s books.

Michael Murray
James Monroe Taylor Professor of Philosophy

Professor Michael Murray’s foray into the field of philosophy was actually inspired by a love of English literature. “I sort of evolved into it,” Murray says.

As an undergraduate, his adventures in poetry writing led him to an interest in literary theory and critical reading and eventually led to the field that has meant so much to him.

Arriving in 1970, Murray has taught Continental philosophy and published books and papers on the philosophy of time and history, philosophy of art, phenomenology and existential thought, and deconstruction, including the thought of Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault.

He has traveled to several universities as a visiting scholar. These sojourns—including stints at the University of Turin in Italy and Yale University—have been among the highlights of his career, Murray says.

A 1983 trip to lecture at Peking University ignited a passion for contemporary Chinese art that continues today. In the years that followed, Murray curated an exhibition of avant-garde Chinese art in New York City and at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Many of the artists in the show became important figures in the contemporary Chinese art market.

“The great thing about Vassar is we have these international connections. We don’t live in a bubble,” he says.

Over the years, it has been the students that have kept him young, Murray says, and he’s enjoyed his colleagues, three of whom retired in recent years. “Now, we’re entering a new time in the department—new challenges and new opportunities,” he says.

Murray, who retired at the end of the fall 2013 semester, says he’ll focus on finishing his book on censorship in the arts—a subject he taught during his final semester at the college. There’s also more traveling in his future, both to places he’s been and brand new destinations.

In all, Murray says, it has been a wonderful ride. “I got well paid for doing the things I love.”

Shirley Johnson-Lans
Professor of Economics

Shirley Johnson-Lans, a former economics professor and former chair of the department, has spent the past 46 years teaching, researching and writing, and participating in nearly every campus committee.

“The first faculty meeting I attended was when the discussion of going coed was in the advanced stages,” she says. “It was fun being part of that transition.”

A pianist who specializes in the harpsichord and sings with a choir in New York City, Johnson-Lans has a seemingly endless supply of subjects and activities that she enjoys, and she plans to widen her exposure even more.

A return trip to Southeast Asia is likely, as is a first-time visit to South Africa—both are places that her academic work has touched upon.

Also on the list is India, since Johnson-Lans sits on the board of the Veerni Project, a nongovernmental organization that brings education and healthcare to rural girls and women. Her research in India, funded by that NGO and Vassar’s Committee on Research, has led to the creation of a database of information on health, including infant nutrition and mortality rates; anemia rates in adolescent girls and women; education—particularly effects of mothers’ literacy on daughters; and child marriage. That survey data have been used as the basis for three working papers and one published article.

Teaching and learning will continue to be part of Johnson-Lans’s life, though she retired at the end of the fall 2013 semester. She plans to take Italian, art history, and music classes at Vassar. And there is the book series she’ll edit for Palgrave Macmillan and the conference at which she’s presenting a paper in the spring.

“I also plan to spend a lot of time with my grandchildren,” she says.

—Debbie Swartz