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Backing Brilliance


Photos by Coral von Zumwalt

Published Jul 1, 2014 8:00 AM

Endowed chairs give top scholars the resources to more fully pursue their fields of study.


In THE 15TH CENTURY, Italian statesman Lorenzo de’ Medici provided financial backing to individual artists, poets and scholars and helped them secure support from other patrons so they could create masterworks. For several years, for example, he provided room and board in his home for Michelangelo.

Similarly, soon after Shakespeare arrived in London, he chose the Earl of Southampton as his patron and subsequently dedicated a number of works to “his lordship.” As only the Bard could say it, he declared that he himself might be censured for “choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden.”

The practice of generous people of means enabling the brilliant and talented to pursue their passions is nothing new, and today chaired professorships are part of the bedrock of academic excellence. Since UCLA’s first decade, specifically 1928, donors have been endowing chairs to help recruit and retain top scholars. Today, the number of UCLA chaired professors is approaching 400, with still more pending. These partnerships link the names and aspirations of donors with the university for decades to come.

Here is a glimpse of six of these renowned scholars and the philanthropists who make it possible for them to do what they do best.


“The field of Islamic law is in my genes,” says prominent human rights scholar Khaled M. Abou El Fadl, the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor in Islamic Law at the UCLA School of Law. His passion for his field of study is part of his background; he grew up in a devout Muslim family. “It’s not an abstract, theoretical interest for me. ... I am deeply connected to the normative issues of Muslim life.” Armed with a B.A. in political science from Yale University, an M.A. and Ph.D. in Islamic law from Princeton University, and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the professor practiced immigration and investment law in the U.S. and the Middle East, and he also taught Islamic law at several major law schools before coming to UCLA in 1998.

He credits the Alfis’ foresight in identifying the need for the distinguished chair. “They wanted to create an incentive to drive and encourage scholarship and public discourse in Islamic law. … It was quite visionary,” says Abou El Fadl, who has held the chair since it was established in 2006.

Azmeralda Alfi says she hopes “the maturation and growth of Islamic legal studies in UCLA’s distinguished law school will contribute to a higher level of awareness of the richness of Islamic legal concepts.”

Abou El Fadl says his area of scholarship is often a “face-to-face confrontation with extremism. There are always the rhetorical, dogmatic engagements. As a scholar, this cannot stop you. Far more important [are] the normative contributions you make by engaging people with reasonable minds.”

Every year, law school students from around the world apply to work under his supervision. He says that many applicants come from Saudi Arabia, even though he is a “longtime critic” of puritan and Wahhabi Islam. As the chair of the Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program at UCLA, he supervises a large number of doctoral dissertations.

He is passionate about inspiring his students to become public policy advocates and to fully engage as public intellectuals. He is uncomfortable with the notion that the law serves only as a method for doing business. “The legal system plays an important symbolic role in society, and I try to inspire students to take on public causes,” he says.


The tradition of carrying a pocket watch was handed down to Khaled Abou El Fadl from his Usuli teachers.

Clearly, he has been successful. Many of the professor’s graduate students, whom he affectionately calls “my intellectual children,” are now professors, lawyers, judges, human rights advocates and government officials in the U.S. and abroad, everywhere from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to Turkey, Canada and Qatar.

His book The Great Theft (HarperCollins, 2005), the first work to delineate the key differences between moderate and extremist Muslims, was named one of the Top 100 Books of the Year by Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. To date, Abou El Fadl’s scholarly works include 14 books and more than 50 articles; they have been translated into numerous languages, including Arabic, Persian, French, Norwegian, Dutch, Ethiopian, Russian and Japanese. He says the many invitations he receives to speak around the world on Islamic law and Islam, and also on human rights, is a strong indication that his scholarly approach to Islam from a moral point of view is having an impact on public discourse.

In March, Abou El Fadl received the 2014 American Muslim Achievement Award, presented by the Islamic Center of Southern California. He was recognized for having achieved excellence in his field and for making outstanding contributions to society. He says the award reminded him of the role he plays as a public intellectual, adding, “You have a moral obligation and a moral function to engage in society. … It makes me feel relevant, which is the most an academic can hope to be.”

— Michael Stone


Lixia Zhang was a graduate student at MIT in the 1980s when she got to know Jonathan Postel ’66, M.S. ’68, Ph.D. ’74, the Internet pioneer. Quiet, unassuming — and very much fitting the stereotype for the profession with sandals and a long, bushy beard — Postel was the deputy chair of a government-sponsored group overseeing the Internet’s architectural design and chaired by Zhang’s faculty Ph.D. adviser. “He was a very special person,” Zhang says of Postel, “and he devoted his life to Internet development.”

Today, 16 years after Postel’s untimely death at 55, Zhang is carrying that same torch as a professor of computer science at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, where she holds the Jonathan B. Postel Chair in Computer Science. The chair, established through an endowed fund initially created by a distinguished group of Postel’s friends and family, is intended for a faculty member of significant stature in computer science who will continue to make the strides Postel made in Internet-related research.

Postel was part of the UCLA group that pioneered the Internet in 1969. He was a programmer on the Leonard Kleinrock-led team that established the first network connection between two machines on campus and, nearly two months later, sent the first host-to-host message from UCLA to the Stanford Research Institute — signaling the birth of the Internet. He went on to become a leading spokesman for, and architect of, the systematic organization of the rapidly growing online community. During his career, Postel contributed significantly to Internet protocol design and verification, multimedia computing and communications, electronic commerce, the Internet domain-name system and a range of other Internet protocols.

Zhang, whom Kleinrock recruited to UCLA in 1995, is widely respected for her contributions to Internet architecture and protocol designs. In 1999 she coined the now widely used term “middlebox,” referring to the new components that are not in the original IP (Internet protocol) architecture. She received the 2009 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Internet Award for her contributions. Since 2010, she has led what might be classified as a rebirth: a multicampus, National Science Foundation-funded project to develop a new Internet architecture called Named Data Networking.

“Thirty-five years ago, no one could have imagined where the Internet would be today,” she says. “As a result, the architecture we created at that time no longer fits. Our team is very excited to design a new architecture that will enhance the functionality of the Internet.”

The Internet changed the world — but Zhang believes the biggest changes in society are yet to come. “My career goal is to not only help the Internet grow, but also to help train new generations of Internet engineers and researchers by teaching students how to think architecturally,” she says. “Jon devoted his life to this. We are just continuing his vision.”

— Dan Gordon ’85



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