Five Faculty Members Receive Endowed ChairsBaird, Means, Nesbit, Van Norden, Patkus Honored at Convocation

Five distinguished faculty members, including a longtime scholar at the library, were honored this fall with endowed chairs, President Elizabeth Bradley announced.

Prof. of Psychological Science Abigail Baird ‘91 was appointed to the Arnhold Family Chair in Psychology; Assistant Prof. of Political Science Taneisha Means was named to the Class of 1951 Chair for a Pre-tenured Faculty Member; Prof. of Art Molly Nesbitt ‘74 was named recipient of the Mary Conover Mellon Chair; Prof. of Philosophy Bryan Van Norden was appointed to the James Monroe Taylor Philosophy Chair, and Ronald Patkus, Associate Director of the Vassar Library for Special Collections, was named to the Frederick Weyerhauser Chair in Biblical Literature and Bibliography. 

“All five of these accomplished faculty members have distinguished themselves as teachers and scholars who support students and the College itself in a variety roles,” Bradley said during a ceremony in the Chapel at Fall Convocation. “I am honored to recognize them today.”

Prof. of Psychological Science Abigail Baird, The Arnhold Family Chair

Prof. Abigail Baird

The Arnhold Family Chair was established by John and Jody Arnhold, whose son, Paul Arnhold ’07, majored in psychology. John Arnhold was a Vassar trustee from 2004 to 2016.

Baird is a Professor of Psychological Science at Vassar College, and the Principal Investigator of the Laboratory for Adolescent Science. She earned her undergraduate degree from Vassar College and both an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Following positions at both Harvard and Dartmouth, Abigail returned to Vassar in 2006, where she continues her teaching and research today.

The primary focus of Abigail’s research is developmental neuroscience, with a particular focus on the changes in reasoning and decision-making that take place during adolescence. Abigail is the author of two books and has published numerous scientific and popular press articles about her research. Her research has received awards from Harvard University and the Society for Research on Psychopathology. In 2012 Abigail (along with colleague Craig Bennett) was awarded the prestigious Ig Nobel Prize in Neuroscience; a prize awarded by previous Nobel Laureates for “science that first makes people laugh and then makes them think”.

She has been elected to several scientific societies including the International Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. Her professional accomplishments also include serving as Secretary of the Association for Psychological Science, Invited Faculty to the New York State Judicial Institute, and Advisory Board member on the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Abigail is an award winning teacher having received Harvard’s George Goethals Teaching Prize, as well as the Class of 1962 Excellence in Teaching Fellowship, awarded by Dartmouth College. Her teaching has also been recognized by the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology having been invited to deliver the William James Lecture at the institute’s annual meeting. The lecture was subsequently published in the Association for Psychological Science’s Magazine The Observer: “Sticky Teaching: How to turn your students into kids in the psychological candy store.” Abigail is also a highly sought after public speaker, providing lectures and training sessions to a wide range of groups who work with adolescents including: Federal and State Judiciaries, Teaching Associations, as well as many academic institutions.

Abigail’s research and experience has also been featured in many popular media outlets such as Time Magazine, The New York Times, Discover Magazine, National Geographic, Scientific American, People Magazine, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone Magazine, The L.A. Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Huffington Post, New York Magazine and The Boston Globe. Abigail has appeared on a wide range of radio and television programs, most recently appearing in two episodes of National Geographic’s Emmy Nominated show Brain Games. She has also been featured as an expert in several documentaries including, most recently, HBO’s Beware the Slenderman.

“To be associated with the amazing philanthropy of the Arnhold family is an honor I can’t quite get my mind around,” Baird said, “and I hope people will take a moment to think about the example of generosity they have (and continue to) set!

Assistant Prof. of Political Science Taneisha Means, Class of 1951 Chair

Assistant Prof. Taneisha Means

The Class of 1951 established the Chair in honor of their 55th Reunion in 2006. The goal was $1.5 million, which they continue to work toward. Until the Class of 1951 raises $1.5 million, the Fund will be used for chairs assigned to and supporting one of Vassar's most promising assistant professors after his/her reappointment, a time when some additional research support could be most welcome. 

Means, who earned her MA and PhD degrees at Duke University, has been a member of the faculty since 2016. Her research and teaching interests focus on racial and ethnic politics, and she is working on a book on 21st century Black judges in U.S. state courts. 

“The notification of this honor brought tears to my eyes,” Means said. “I am a black woman, a first generation college student and an introvert, and I have often struggled with the imposter syndrome, which I partially attribute to the fact that I am in a discipline where black women are still an anomaly and race and ethnic politics is not often respected, embraced and understood as a legitimate area of study. Nonetheless, I love my career and to have my efforts and achievements acknowledged and honored in this way is affirming. I am thankful for colleagues across the campus who’ve mentored me, the bright students who’ve inspired me, and the institutional support I’ve received that has made it possible for me to do the kind of work that motivated me to become a political scientist in the first place. I greatly appreciate the Class of 1951’s generosity and am quite pleased to join past recipients, whom I admire and respect.”

Prof. of Art Molly Nesbit, The Mary Conover Chair of Art History

Mary Conover Mellon, born Mary Conover Brown (1904-1946), graduated from Vassar in 1926. She married Paul Mellon, heir to the Mellon fortune, in 1934. After Mary’s death, Paul Mellon collaborated with Mary’s Vassar classmate, Gertude Garnsey, to establish the Mary Conover Mellon Foundation for the Advancement of Education at the College. The Mary Conover Mellon Chairs in Art and Music were established in July 1961 by a grant from the Old Dominion Foundation.

Nesbit received her Master’s and PhD degrees from Yale University and taught at the University of California at Berkeley and Barnard College, Columbia University, before returning to Vassar in 1993. In addition to her teaching duties at Vassar, she is a contributing editor of Artforum.  Her books include Atget’s Seven Albums (Yale University Press, 1992) and Their Common Sense (Black Dog, 2000). Since 2002, together with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija, she has been curating the succession of Utopia Stations, an ongoing collective book, exhibition, seminar, web and street project. The Pragmatism in the History of Art (Periscope, 2013), is the first volume of Pre-Occupations, a series collecting her essays; the second, Midnight: The Tempest Essays, was published in 2017 by Inventory Press. 

“To be awarded the Mary Conover Mellon Chair of Art History is a public honor, but I have felt it personally,” Nesbitt said. “There is warmth left by someone else in the seat of this Chair, in fact many ‘someones’— first Agnes Rindge Claflin, a lion of the Art Department, then Wolfgang Stechow, Christine Havelock (one of my teachers) and Nicholas Adams, each of them distinguished, internationally recognized scholars.  An artist friend, Lawrence Weiner, asked if my Chair had arms. I would say yes, many arms, all of them strong. But most importantly, with Chairs come responsibility. This is a Chair to keep warm for the next art historian, just as we all work to keep the lights of knowledge on, and bright.”

Prof. of Philosophy Bryan Van Norden, The James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy

Prof. Bryan Van Norden

The James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy is named for Vassar’s fourth president. During his tenure from 1886 to 1914, Taylor worked for the endowment of professorships and broadened the curriculum to include history, economics, psychology, religion, art, and music, as well as more laboratory-based science courses.

Van Norden holds a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford University. His primary area of specialization is Chinese philosophy, but he also has broad interests in Chinese literature and Western philosophy, including ethics. His most recent books are a translation anthology. Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century; a textbook, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, a translation, Mengzi with Selections from Traditional Commentators, a monograph, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, a revised edition of a translation anthology that he co-edited and contributed to, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, and a collection of essays that he edited and contributed to, Confucius and the Analects.

“I am deeply honoured to have been named the James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy,” Van Norden said. “I am specialist in Chinese philosophy, and Vassar has one of the few philosophy departments in the country that encourages the study of non-Western philosophy. I was also one of the founders of the Department of Chinese & Japanese at Vassar, where I teach Chinese and Japanese literature and Classical Chinese. I am fortunate to have talented and supportive colleagues in the Philosophy Department, the Department of Chinese & Japanese, and in the administration.  However, the students are what really make Vassar such a special place to work.  It is a joy to teach such talented and engaged undergraduates.”

Ronald Patkus, Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History on the Frederick Weyerhauser Chair

Ronald Patkus

The Frederick Weyerhauser Chair in Biblical Literature and Bibliography was established by a gift of $75,000 in 1916 from Mrs. William Bancroft Hill, daughter of Frederick Weyerhaeuser. In addition to establishing the Chair, the gift provided funds for the purchase of books. William Bancroft Hill, the first incumbent of the chair and the son in law of Frederick Weyerhaeuser, not only acquired scholarly monographs but also founded Vassar's Bible Collection.  The purpose of this collection in the rare book area was to support teaching

Patkus earned a Bachelor’s degree from Boston College, a Master’s and Certificate in Archival Management from the University of Connecticut, a Master’s in Library Science from Simmons College (1993), and a PhD in History from Boston College (1997). Mr. Patkus serves as Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections and is a member of the History Department.  His teaching and research interests focus on the history of books and printing.  

“I was of course thrilled to learn that a chair was available to support my teaching and research, and was eager to know more about its history,” Patkus said. “I learned it was established by Elise Weyerhaeuser Hill and her husband, Vassar professor William Bancroft Hill. Hill was the first holder of the chair, and used some funds to acquire historical texts for the Library’s Bible Collection. Because of my own focus on the history of the Bible and books in general, I feel very connected to these early efforts in bibliography! I look forward to continuing to curate the Bible and rare book collections, using them in teaching, and drawing upon resources at Vassar and elsewhere in my research.”