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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.

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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.

MORE THAN AN ABSTRACTION

“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.

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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

PIONEERING A NEW INTERNET

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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Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

BRINGING WORLD CULTURES TO CAMPUS

Ask Shirley and Ralph Shapiro — generous benefactors to all kinds of initiatives at UCLA and elsewhere — why they make ongoing gifts to UCLA’s Fowler Museum, and it pretty much comes down to this: Their respect for Fowler director Marla C. Berns ’73, M.A. ’76, Ph.D. ’86.

Berns came to the Fowler in 2001 after a decade as director of the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara. Since then, she has brought the small but mighty museum to new heights and fostered international relationships that have deepened the museum’s prestige and influence around the world.

“Marla and what she is doing is what attracted us to the Fowler,” says Ralph Shapiro ’53, J.D. ’58.

A decade or so ago, the Shapiros established an ongoing discretionary fund for Berns to use as needed — for example, to secure a traveling exhibition or to buy a work of art. In 2007, they added a $1-million gift to establish an endowed fund that made Berns the first Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum.

And they didn’t stop there. From time to time, Berns gets the news that the Shapiros have added another gift, which she can use as needed — for example, to cover the hiring of part-time staff for installations or for marketing and outreach costs for certain exhibitions. Among other things, Berns used funds from the Shapiros for collections research in Europe for the museum’s highly praised 2011 exhibition Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley, which was produced in association with the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.

“These resources have offered me a high level of programmatic flexibility and also provide a way to support professional development for Fowler staff,” Berns says. “They’ve allowed the Fowler to broaden its purview and develop a profile internationally.”

The Shapiros — who also support UCLA’s School of Law, School of Dentistry, medical enterprise and environmental initiatives, among other things — say their interest in the museum stems from their desire to encourage appreciation for the world’s cultures.

“The Fowler explains the cultures of countries through the exploration of customs and arts, so we end up coming to a different and deeper understanding of others and ourselves,” says Shirley Shapiro ’59, who has had a strong interest in this topic since she was a girl.

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Marla Berns cradles a pre-1970s ceramic vessel that was believed by the Cham-Mwana people to cure sick children by trapping their diseases inside. The vessel is from Nigeria, where Berns did her Ph.D. fieldwork.

For Berns, the Shapiros’ support has been crucial for the museum, which currently is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a series of exhibitions and special programs.

“You can only imagine how it inspires me to keep moving forward and draw on the energy they send my way to invest in the work we do at the museum,” Berns says. “They’re also completely supportive of the new directions we’re going in with our programming, including a greater emphasis on contemporary artists.”

Berns calls the Shapiros’ giving “inspirational, transformational philanthropy. They care about me and about the Fowler,” she says. “They’re invested in our success.”

— Claudia Luther

PRESCRIPTION TO DECREASE DRUGS

A small box sits on a bookshelf in David Cohen’s office, emblazoned with the metaphor to which the professor and Marjorie Crump Chair in Social Welfare has subscribed throughout his career: Think outside the box.

The Crump chair, which the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs professor has held since 2013, encourages the type of convention-challenging thought that Cohen insists his discipline needs. “Many of us in academia spend a lot of time going after grants,” Cohen explains. “This endowment gives me the freedom not to have to do that. It gives me the leeway to pursue an idea without having to fit into anyone’s conception of what is fundable. It’s fantastic.”

Since the 1970s, when he was first practicing as a clinical social worker, Cohen has examined the personal and social consequences of the widespread use of prescribed psychoactive medications. “At least one-fifth of the U.S. population is on these drugs, given by their doctors for supposed mental disorders,” he says. “Everyone has looked at the benefits, but these substances also change how people think and how others see them. I try to re-envision a mental-health intervention without reducing people to bundles of neurons, and without confusing the science of healing a psychosocially hurt person with the marketing of drugs.”

After being appointed to the chair — previously held by Stuart A. Kirk, with whom he co-authored the 2013 book Mad Science: Psychiatric Coercion, Diagnosis, and Drugs — Cohen began communicating with Ralph Crump ’50, who established the chair with his wife, Marjorie ’46. “We have had wonderful phone conversations,” Cohen says. “He got a copy of my book, and within a few minutes of talking he understood exactly what I’m about — and gave me concrete suggestions that I’m working on now. He was an amazingly successful businessman and is so smart. It’s invigorating to speak with him.”

Marjorie Crump, for whom the chair is named, died this past March. She graduated from UCLA’s social work program in 1946 and became a licensed social worker for Los Angeles County, while Ralph Crump — her high school sweetheart — returned to campus for an engineering degree after serving in World War II. The couple went on to remarkable success in biomedical and other high-tech industries, being awarded a dozen patents while starting and growing a number of businesses, more than one of which ended up listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Crumps’ problem-solving, entrepreneurial spirit appeals to Cohen, who is capitalizing on his position to organize an international conference of critical-thought leaders with the intent of rethinking the future of mental-health care. He hopes to engage UCLA students in the effort, whether in the classroom, on individual projects, in organizing the meeting and through an essay contest. “These are immensely talented and thoughtful people who want to give back to society,” he says. “My goal is to encourage them to become independent, bold, entrepreneurial and forward-thinking. This chair makes that easier to do.”

— D.G.

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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FINANCE

Avanidhar Subrahmanyam Ph.D. ’90 says there is so much more to finance than just mathematics. “Behavioral finance helps us better understand mistakes people make in investing, which in turn sheds light on how those mistakes can be rectified,” says Subrahmanyam, the professor of finance who holds the Goldyne and Irwin Hearsh Chair in Money and Banking at UCLA Anderson School of Management. “It is the nonquantitative, human aspects of finance that fascinate me.”

Subrahmanyam, who is best known around campus and in academic circles simply as “Subra,” was appointed in 2005 to the Hearsh chair, which was established in 1982. Goldyne and Irwin Hearsh’s vision was to encourage scholarship in finance and applied economics. At that time, the field was gaining prominence in management education. Today, the study of banking and financial markets continues to be of great importance at UCLA Anderson and at other leading schools.

Irwin Hearsh, who graduated from UCLA in 1934 with a degree in economics, founded Hearsh Brothers, which grew, packaged, transported and wholesaled produce. During his professional career, he also served as president of Old 395 Corporation, a real estate investment company; as a founding director of Manufacturers Bank; and as a director of Republic Indemnity Company of America. He also developed and owned the Rainbow Canyon Golf Resort, now known as Temecula Creek Inn Golf Resort. He passed away in 1986; his wife, Goldyne, died in 2013.

Subrahmanyam never met the Hearshes but is quick to acknowledge his gratitude for their foresight. The chair’s focus has evolved over three decades to embrace research into many timely subjects, including the use of psychological principles to explain stock-price movements as well as events and behavioral patterns that result in financial phenomena, such as spikes in gasoline prices and the effect of war on the stock market. “The chair has helped me tremendously,” he says. “My research has pioneered the notion that financial markets may be driven by nonrational considerations.”

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Awards and children’s artwork hang charmingly askew in the office of Avanidhar Subrahmanyam, whose interests lie in the nonquantitative, human aspects of finance.

Recently, he used funds to travel to Indonesia, where he gave the keynote address on financial markets and the macroeconomy at an inaugural professional society conference. He credits the talk with helping popularize finance in a geographic region of strategic interest.

But his real reward is working with students. “One of my students is forming an investment company based on emerging market stock that uses behavior research I taught in class,” he says. “Other students now have active research agendas at universities across the country. This makes me very proud.”

— M.S.

HISTORY COMES ALIVE

Although they never met, Willeke Wendrich and the late Joan Malloy Silsbee ’53 shared a kindred passion: a love of Africa and its rich history. And because of that mutual affection, the two are closely linked today. Wendrich, a professor of Egyptian archaeology and digital humanities, holds the Joan Silsbee Chair of African Cultural Archaeology in the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

“I immediately felt a connection when I learned that Joan was a well-traveled woman with a passion for archaeology,” says Wendrich, who received her Ph.D. in Egyptian archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “This endowment has made a huge difference in my scholarship.”

A leading Egyptologist, Wendrich conducts excavations in the country’s ancient landscape. There, with a large international team of archaeologists and 15 students, Wendrich looks for clues to the important role of agriculture throughout history. What was the first evidence that agriculture existed in prehistoric Egypt? How was agriculture developed and used in political power plays during the Greco-Roman period?

“This gift not only enables me to organize these excavations, but also provides the funding support needed to help me maintain other important projects,” says Wendrich, who is editor-in-chief of the online UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology and leads several online research projects. One, called the Digital Karnak Project, is an online resource that makes the temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak — an ancient complex that reflects the religious and political history of Egypt — more accessible to scholars, students and the general public. A large part of the Silsbee endowment enables her to involve both graduate and undergraduate students.

This fall, Wendrich and a graduate student will visit Ethiopia, where they will contact local universities and government organizations and talk to the local population to understand their way of life and their link to the past. In the future, Wendrich hopes to conduct an excavation and survey project in Ethiopia with a large science component.

It is research that Silsbee, who made numerous trips to Africa in her lifetime, would undoubtedly embrace. “I think she would be so pleased to know that because of her endowment, we can expand our work further into eastern Africa,” says Wendrich. “Through this important archaeological work, students learn collaboration and intercultural understanding — and history is made tangible.”

— Patty Park ’91