Teaming Up to Invest in Faculty Excellence

Micheal Maitland and Dr. Larry McKay

Larry McKay (right) presents Micheal Maitland (left) with an Accomplished Alumni Award at the alumni barbecue last October near Houston, Texas.

When it comes to choosing a college, students must consider not only where they want to spend the next few years of their lives, but also how well the school of their choice will reflect on them in their future careers. As one UT alumnus says, “Where you go to college will define you the rest of your life.”

Micheal Maitland (MS, ’79), author of those words, had been given the option to attend either Vanderbilt University or the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for a master’s degree in geology. With encouragement from one of his professors at UT Martin, Maitland chose to stay with the UT system and forego the graduate assistantship he had been offered at Vanderbilt.

Maitland moved to Knoxville not knowing how he was going to pay rent but hopeful that the reputable geology program at UT would be worth it. He knew he had made the right decision when he was granted a teaching assistantship the day before classes started. Even more, he was offered a job with ExxonMobil (Exxon at the time) a month before graduating.

“Nothing is ever just given to you—you have to work hard for it,” says Maitland, who served the company for thirty years and was able to retire at age 60. “Still, my education at UT gave me the platform to have a nice career, and I owe that to the department.”

And that is why Maitland and several other alumni who similarly feel indebted to UT were quick to answer the call to support their alma mater when they learned their department needed help retaining critical faculty members who had the national and international acclaim to be recruited by other institutions.

The national economic downturn combined with state budget cuts had taken a toll on faculty morale. As of last spring, faculty had not had a salary raise in four years, and recent faculty recruits were especially affected by the constrained budget.

“I knew we needed to take a proactive approach in order to keep these faculty members before they were recruited by other institutions that could offer better financial support,” says Larry McKay, Jones Professor of Hydrogeology and head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

McKay, Hap McSween, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the time, and development staff Cathy Dodge (senior director) and John Dinkens (director) traveled to visit long-term supporters to discuss with them the department’s need. Investing in faculty resources was a goal that immediately appealed to several alumni. Micheal and Joann Maitland, Kim Sickafoose and Kim Dinh, Wesley and Cindy Diehl, Tom Cronin and Helen Sestak, and Roger and Bev Bohanon not only gave to the cause, but also co-hosted alumni dinners in Houston and Louisiana. As a result of these events, alumni such as Mike Allison and former graduate student Tom McWhorter were reconnected with the department. Mike and Mary Allison of Houston, Bill Ross of Virginia, and David Jackson of Nashville also made contributions to the department. These alumni and their spouses stepped up to answer the call for support within a matter of six months and donated more than $300,000 combined, creating six new gift funds and three endowment funds.

As a result, five Faculty Achievement Awards were granted to faculty to be used for salary, travel, or a variety of research expenses. A sixth award will be given out next year, and several of these gifts will be replaced by endowments, including the Micheal and Joann Maitland endowment, at the end of the five-year award period.

Micah Jessup, assistant professor of structural geology and tectonics, and Devon Burr, assistant professor of planetary geology, were the first two recipients of the awards.

“This award will give me greater flexibility in funding projects that my students are involved in,” says Jessup, who received the Kim Sickafoose and Kim Dinh Faculty Achievement Award. “It will also help me create a thesis for new research avenues I want to explore in the Himalayas.”

“I really appreciate the generosity of our EPS alumni. Their financial support will enable me to engage more undergraduate students in my research, which is key to producing strong and proactive graduates,” says Burr, who received the Wesley and Cindy Diehl Faculty Achievement Award. “It will also help me in exploring and developing new field work sites around the world with my graduate students.”

Maitland, who has now been giving to the department for thirty years, said giving back has a twofold benefit: It helps the department continue to thrive, and, therefore, the value of his education continues to reflect well on him.

“One of the reasons I was recruited into a great job right out of graduate school is because ExxonMobil knew UT had a history of producing problem solvers and thinkers,” Maitland says. “By helping the department retain top faculty and encouraging alumni of all ages to extend their support, I am now ensuring that UT continues to produce well-equipped students in the field.”

McKay says he and the faculty in the department are grateful to have the goodwill, support, and commitment from alumni.

“Any of these alumni might not have had the funds to satisfy the need alone, but together, their gifts made a critical difference in the department,” McKay says.

The need for resources for this goal will be ongoing and ever growing as the department continues to recruit and retain a talented, world-class faculty. But these alumni are undaunted by the challenge because they realize that together they can extend strong support to their department now and build a foundation of long-term support for the future.

EPS Alumni

Earth and Planetary Sciences alumni of all ages gather on October 1, 2011, for a barbecue at Tom McWhorters’ ranch on the Trinity River. The event was attended by faculty members Larry McKay and Micah Jessup, as well as by many alumni and their families.

–Sara Collins Haywood