Diversity Leadership Award recipients to be honored Jan. 11

University Communications

Nancy B. Schwartz, the faculty recipient of the University of Chicago's 2016 Diversity Leadership Award, was one of only four women in her engineering school in the 1960s. As she worked toward a degree in mathematics, a college professor told her that path would give her only two options: She could try going to graduate school, but she'd never get in because she is a female, or she could work for Bell Telephone.

So Schwartz switched to chemistry, a slightly more inviting field, if still one with a chilly environment, she said. "I know what it's like to be underrepresented in a community, but I have never let it jaundice me in any way. I just try to make the world around me a better place."

Schwartz has approached that objective by devoting the past 25 years to diversifying the community of scientific scholars. A professor of pediatrics, and of biochemistry and molecular biology, her leadership as dean of postdoctoral affairs and formerly as founding dean of graduate affairs in the Biological Sciences Division has created an environment that fosters diversity and equality.

Nationally she has fostered the preparation for higher education of numerous underrepresented students through her work with the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Leadership Alliance. At UChicago, she has secured National Institutes of Health funding to develop programs that assist those underrepresented in the sciences, spanning the whole of the academic continuum from post-baccalaureate, to graduate students, to post-graduate and junior faculty.

Beyond building a strong foundation for aspiring scientists, Schwartz promotes the value of creating such training opportunities to her faculty colleagues, partnering with them to design education programs that emphasize diversity.  

“Dr. Schwartz has functioned as a powerful role model to faculty,” wrote Victoria Prince, professor of organismal biology and anatomy, who nominated Schwartz for the diversity award. “I have personally benefitted from her mentorship in this regard and am currently a training grant director and dean for graduate affairs in the BSD,” Prince wrote in her nomination letter.

The University’s Diversity Leadership Awards, presented by the Diversity Leadership Council, are now in their eighth year. They recognize a member of the faculty, a member of the alumni community and a staff member who foster diversity and advance social justice and equality across campus and in the community. Also receiving awards this year are Denise M. Jorgens, Staff Diversity Leadership Award recipient, and Charles Branham, PhD’80, Alumni Diversity Leadership Award recipient. President Robert J. Zimmer will present the awards at a special reception on Jan. 11, and the recipients will be recognized at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

Diversity Leadership Council co-chair Sonya Malunda, senior associate vice president for community engagement, said she is thankful for this year’s recipients who are “keeping the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s words alive and well. Their dedication and passion for the mutual cause of equity and inclusion will continue to impact people and communities far into the future.”

"Theirs are careers we celebrate and whose accomplishments we aspire to model," said Prof. William McDade, of the recipients. McDade, professor of anesthesiology and critical care, associate dean for multicultural affairs at the Pritzker School of Medicine and deputy provost for research and minority issues, co-chairs the Diversity Leadership Council with Malunda.

A common humanity

Denise M. Jorgens, AM'83, PhD'95, is the Staff Diversity Leadership Award recipient this year. Jorgens, who directs International House, sees part of her mission as helping people appreciate their common humanity. She participates in an 84-year history that includes sustaining a diverse residential community and fostering diversity of thought through internationally focused public programming.

A personal connection to I-House began more than 30 years ago when she became a resident. She was so affected by the experience that she began working there three years later in 1985. "I found an exciting and supportive community that transforms residents into global citizens through knowledge, understanding and empathy gained by living together,” said Jorgens.

“The numerous alumni of the House around the world testify to the importance of living in the diverse community for dispelling preconceptions of all sorts about other races, ethnic groups, religions and nationalities,” wrote Ralph Nicholas, AM’58, PhD’62, the William Rainey Harper Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Social Sciences in the College, one of Jorgens’ nominators. “The student years are a formative time in the lives of young people, and there is ample evidence that Denise’s contribution to those years has been indelible.” 

I-House Chicago, which has the capacity to house 435 residents, has more than 40,000 alumni, including Langston Hughes, Katharine Graham, AB’38, Enrico Fermi and David Rockefeller, PhD'40. It offers more than 200 public programs each year, drawing more than 35,000 attendees.

Cultivating and maintaining such large audiences is facilitated by its long history of being a cultural center for Chicago and the Midwest region, partnering with prominent organizations, said Jorgens. The top-notch, multicultural lineup does the rest. Recent programs have featured writer Ta-Nehisi Coates; physician and human rights advocate Paul Farmer; Institute of Politics Director David Axelrod, AB’76, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney; the Hyde Park Jazz Festival; and the annual city-wide Make Music Chicago, a music festival taking place simultaneously in more than 500 cities around the world.

Prior to being appointed director in 2013, Jorgens served as the International House director of programs and external relations. She is the first female director of International House Chicago. In 2014, she became president of International Houses Worldwide Organization, an affiliation of 17 International Houses from across four continents. Jorgens is a board member of the Chicago-Delhi Sister Cities Committee, Chicago Sister Cities International and an active member of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

"Her enthusiasm and warm, personal engagement with residents fosters an environment of trust and friendship in which cultural gaps are readily bridged, said Henry Pernet, PhD'79, one of Jorgens's nominators and former I-House director. “In such an intimate context, multiculturalism is not an abstract concept but a lived reality that transforms lives," he added.

A place in history

The Alumni Diversity Leadership Award recipient Charles Branham, PhD’80, strives to make history available to a broad audience. As a teenager, “for no apparent reason” other than a love of history, he memorized the names of every member of the U.S. Senate. Eventually, he believed that he should be President, he said.

Although it would not be until 2008 that an African American would make history by winning the highest office in the nation, Branham made African American history a lifelong passion that he’s shared through a career spanning more than 40 years as a historian and teacher.

Branham was a graduate student in history of UChicago professor emeritus John Hope Franklin. In 1972, he took two years off to complete a task for which Franklin had selected him. Branham wrote, co-produced and hosted a 30-hour television series, “The Black Experience,” which aired on WTTW and Channel 20 as well as other PBS stations. It was rebroadcast in its entirety at least six times in subsequent years, and Branham earned an Emmy Award for his work.

Branham has taught at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools for 25 years and has taught extensively at the college level, including at Chicago State University, Roosevelt University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University and Indiana University Northwest. He is the former director of education at the DuSable Museum of African American History, where he is still a senior historian.

Outside of the classroom, Branham’s knowledge has informed the work of multiple public and private institutions, and projects such as History Makers, an online archive of oral histories of thousands of contemporary African Americans. As a consultant and speaker, he has spread far and wide his message of equality and justice for people of all ethnic backgrounds. 

"I've given thousands of presentations that show the faces, some famous and others not, of African Americans who have contributed to history in Chicago," Branham said. "It's important, especially for kids, to see the faces of people who look like them, and to tell them there are important things and people coming from the South and West sides, and that their neighborhoods have a place in history."

Branham’s nominator Andrea Martonffy, a retired University of Chicago Laboratory Schools teacher, said of her former teaching colleague, "He has been a pioneer in introducing people of all backgrounds to the particular role and experience of African Americans in the country's history, and is one of a small group of scholars who helped to define and develop the field of African American history. Realize, that as a young man, Branham himself did not have the opportunity to study black history. As a field, it simply did not exist."