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April 14, 2011

Cliff Mirman, Susan Russell, Kendall Thu earn NIU's first Presidential Engagement Professor honors

Cliff Mirman
Cliff Mirman

Sussan Russell
Susan Russell

Kendall Thu
Kendall Thu


DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University has named Cliff Mirman, Susan Russell and Kendall Thu as its first-ever Presidential Engagement Professors.

The honor is based on President John Peters’ call for “engagement with the community through research, economic development, service and instruction. Establishment of these professorships places NIU in the company of the growing number of institutions which now recognize and reward this increasingly critical function.”

Each Presidential Engagement Professorship is accompanied by a $5,000 stipend, renewable annually during each year of a four-year award period. Presidential Engagement Professors also receive a specially minted medallion to be worn with their academic regalia. 

The Presdiential Engagement Professorship awards will be presented Thursday, April 21, during the annual Faculty Awards Ceremony and Reception in the Altgeld Hall auditorium.

Cliff Mirman

For Department of Technology chair Cliff Mirman, a problem in local industry is a goldmine of opportunity for his students. 

Mirman, who also serves as department chair, has spent much of his time over the past 12 years meeting with area manufacturers to understand their challenges and create partnerships that give students real-world experience.

“I consider it a priority to bring regional industry and education together,” Mirman says. “Not only do we help these industries with developing new products and finding ways to reduce costs, but the projects they give us to work on provide invaluable experience for our students.” 

John Pechan, operations director at Olcott Plastics in St. Charles, says Mirman’s support of engaged learning directly benefits his company.

“I need research and technical development support,” Pechan says. “Typically, we have an idea of what we would like, but we do not have the resources to dedicate for transformation of the idea into a working process.”

“Cliff and his students make that happen, providing us with creative, cost-effective, robust solutions. Every project has resulted in acquisition of knowledge for all parties.”

The concept of mutual benefit that defines university engagement is much in evidence with all the partnerships Mirman has developed and continues to nurture. 

Grateful for the assistance from NIU faculty and students, companies have given back by providing research projects, internships and cooperative education experiences, as well as full-time jobs for new graduates. They’ve also donated money and in-kind contributions for equipment and programmatic support, including naming rights-level funding for two department labs.

Mirman’s emphasis on finding industry partners also has paid off when seeking government grants for research. Nearly all of the major funding agencies require universities to have established relationships with corporations where new ideas can be tested.

Mirman’s commitment to outreach extends beyond industrial partners.

He is an enthusiastic promoter of engineering and technology careers, and has developed dozens of activities and programs for regional public schools and community colleges. He also has developed numerous off-campus academic programs – including online courses – and has established partnerships with 16 regional community colleges.

With expertise that is continually in demand both on- and off-campus, Mirman takes every opportunity to advocate for outreach and engaged learning. He serves on the Undergraduate Student Opportunities in Artistry and Research (USOAR) selection committee, the NIU Outreach Advisory Committee, the Distributed Learning Task Force and the Vision 2020 Steering Committee. 

In 2010, he received the Target Corp.’s Faculty/Advisor Award, and for the last eight years has served on the Illinois Articulation Initiative panels in engineering and technology.

“I truly believe that Dr. Mirman wants students to gain as much real world experience as possible before they graduate,” former student Nick DiOrio writes. “I can honestly say that my time with him was some of the best education I ever received.”

Susan Russell

To say that NIU anthropologist Susan Russell is engaged in her work with Filipino youth would be an understatement: Two months ago, she was officially adopted into an ancient tribe, the only non-Filipino ever granted such a privilege. 

For the past eight years, Russell has directed a U.S. State Department-funded initiative to bring peace to a conflict-torn region of the Philippines. Each year, she and co-director Lina Ong have run month-long institutes on NIU’s campus for adult leaders and youth activists from the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines. 

The institutes aim to promote partnerships between U.S. and Filipino groups and strengthen understanding of democratic values as well as to teach community activism, peace-building and conflict resolution, integration of minorities, civic engagement and volunteerism. 

Russell, former director and current faculty associate of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), has received more than $2.2 million in State Department grants to fund the program, which participants call “life-changing.”

“I cannot begin to describe the impact of these programs Sue has run through NIU,” anthropology colleague Kathryn Wiegele writes.

“There is a large and growing network of alumni, educators, and other professionals in the Philippines and the U.S. who are now committed to peace, cultural and environmental sustainability, inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding, and community engagement.”

Russell’s work has captured the attention of a world-wide audience, including Phi Beta Delta, the honor society for international scholars, which in 2009 gave her its annual Faculty Award for Outstanding Contribution to International Education.

In March of 2010, the U.S. State Department asked Russell to prepare a briefing on the Philippine peace process for the new U.S. ambassador to the Philippines. And, based on the success of her Philippine program, the State Department has asked CSEAS to develop a larger initiative called the Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program.

Professor Michael Hawkins of Creighton University writes, “I have witnessed firsthand the remarkable contributions these young people make back in their communities in the Philippines. They always credit Dr. Russell and her programs.”

Russell’s commitment to international understanding underscores all her work. In addition to the Filipino youth project, she has:

  • overseen development of a strong outreach program to K-12 teachers that provides web-based resources on Southeast Asian language and culture;
  • provided teacher training workshops throughout the Chicago suburbs, helping teachers integrate content about Southeast Asia into their curricula;
  • developed a new course for the NIU Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy; and 
  • participated in development of NIU’s new Center for Non-Governmental Leadership and Development (NGOLD).

Russell involves NIU students in all aspects of her work, and encourages them to pursue fieldwork for their own research outside the classroom.

“Dr. Sue instills within her students a sense of civic responsibility,” graduate student Shahin Aftabizadeh writes. “As future academics, she wants to make sure we understand that we are entering a discipline that works directly with individuals and communities around the world.” 

“She leads by example,” Wiegele adds. “Sue has shown her students how empathy, humility, and the will to understand can be combined with responsibility, self-confidence and the will to act.”

Kendall Thu

As votes of confidence go, it’s hard to beat having a colleague write you into his or her will. 

But if you’re Department of Anthropology chair Kendall Thu, that gesture is just one of many honors earned in a career dedicated to public service. 

Thu is one of the world’s top experts in agricultural industrialization, and has focused much of his research on the impact of large, commercial farming on air and water quality.

Writing in support of Thu’s nomination for the Presidential Engagement Professor award, Penn State professor E. Paul Durrenberger said he was leaving his estate to Thu “to continue his work of bringing scientific approaches to bear on the effort to achieve social justice for all.”

Since arriving at NIU in 1999, Thu has brought more than $640,000 from the McKnight Foundation to his study of rural communities and their struggles with the impact of industrialized farming. 

A founding member of the Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water, Thu has helped many small farmers and communities understand how to organize and advocate for policies and practices that protect the environment, human health, and rural quality of life.

Thu is also a founding member of the Food, Farm and Jobs Act Task Force that successfully lobbied for legislation by the same name, and was an executive board member of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, an organization dedicated to sustainable food production practices.

Thu’s work on rural environmental issues focuses primarily on water quality problems created by the rapid proliferation of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. These giant animal warehouses produce enormous amounts of waste, which makes its way into groundwater and other water supplies. Thu works with small farmers and other rural residents to learn how to organize their protests and force producers to comply with the Federal Clean Water Act.

Beyond his applied research and advocacy work, Thu is a much-sought-after expert witness in cases involving environmental damage. Organizations regularly seeking his input include the Audubon Society, the National Sierra Club, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Water Keepers Alliance, the Minnesota Clean Water Fund and Illinois’ Prairie Rivers Network. 

Among his most ardent admirers are colleagues from around the country who praise Thu’s commitment to making anthropology a more socially active discipline.

“Dr. Thu’s contributions center on the roles of applied anthropologist, advocate anthropologist, and publically engaged anthropologist,” writes Professor Alexander Ervin of the University of Saskatchewan. “He is among those making our discipline distinctive and distinguished in the larger public arena, making it directly useable at community, regional and national levels.”

Among his students, Thu is held in high regard for the guidance he provides and the example he sets.

Danielle Diamond was a third-year law student at NIU when she happened to take Thu’s class on environmental anthropology and decided to focus her career on environmental issues.

“Dr. Thu has empowered countless individuals across the state and nation to ensure their rights to clean air and water are protected,” Diamond writes. “Often, when you work closely with someone, you lose perspective about how impactful they actually are. Where Dr. Thu is concerned, I have never lost sight of this.”

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Media Contact: Bradley Hoey, NIU Media Relations & Internal Communications
Phone: 815-753-1681
Email: bhoey@niu.edu