Bowdoin Honors Three Retiring Faculty Members

Three faculty members were granted emeritus status during the annual meeting of the Bowdoin College Board of Trustees on May 9-11, 2014.

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Religion professor Jorunn Buckley (left) has served the College for 15 years, environmental studies and government professor DeWitt John (right) has logged 14 years of service, and German professor Steven Cerf (center) has devoted an incredible 43 years to teaching at Bowdoin.

Steven Cerfcerf

The Bowdoin community bids a fond farewell to Steven Cerf upon his retirement after nearly half a century of service to the College. A native New Yorker from Queens, Cerf received his bachelor’s degree from Queens College CUNY and graduate degrees from Yale University. After holding a part time position as an acting instructor at Yale, he began employment as an instructor at Bowdoin in 1971 while still working toward his PhD. He soon became a tenure track professor and in 1990 earned an endowed professorship as George L. Skolfield, Jr. Professor of German.

Cerf is known as a patron of the arts, a voracious consumer of culture, and a consummate opera lover. In the late 70s and early 80s he hosted a radio program called “The Opera Buff” on WDCS-FM Portland. In recent years he has held an annual alumni event at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, during which he has given a talk and shared a meal with alumni, parents, and friends of Bowdoin, before taking them all to the opera. A few years ago Cerf was famously quoted in the Orient’s annual joke edition as saying: “Bowdoin bubble? What Bowdoin bubble? I’m piercing it. I’m going right through. I’m off to the opera.”

According to colleagues, Cerf reads five newspapers a day, has an encyclopedic memory, loves to forge connections with people, and is known for being a caring teacher and mentor to German majors. He has been referred to by students variously as a “real gem,” a “veritable institution at Bowdoin,” and a “jolly guy who loves pretty much everything.” One former student noted that “he’s a really good teacher and has been teaching for such a long time that he knows where you are going to mess up before you even do.”

In addition to teaching courses on the German language and German opera, Cerf – the son of Holocaust survivors – has taught a recurring course titled “The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination.” When he was chosen to give the Karofsky Faculy Encore Lecture in 2010, he delivered a heartwrenching address called “Hearing my Grandparents’ Voices: Their Letters Before Deportation.”

According to his fellow German professor Jill Smith, “Steve has made it his mission to teach Bowdoin students about the Nazis’ genocidal campaign against the Jews and its representation in literature, film, art, and music. By showing students how the arts can get us to sense (even if we cannot understand it) the incomprehensible violence and devastation of the Holocaust, Steve reveals both the power and the limits of artistic expression.”

“Most important,” Smith continued, “through his own nurturing and compassionate classroom persona and through the sharing of his family’s personal story, Steve reminds our students that Jewish culture is very much alive and well. Through his teaching and by his own example of living every day to its fullest, Steve honors the dead and, at the same time, celebrates life.”

During his illustrious career Cerf has written more than 60 articles and 40 reviews and presented more than 30 papers. He has led more than 20 seminars for Maine Humanities Council over the years, and participated in several summer and year-long National Endowment of the Humanities Seminars. Other courses taught by Cerf include “The Emergence of the European Encyclopedic Novel,” “The Faust Myth Through the Ages,” “Scandinavian Thought and Culture.”

After Cerf’s very last class on Wednesday afternoon last week, he left the classroom in Sills to be greeted by a surprise crowd of his many admirers, who gave him a round of applause to honor his 43 years of extraordinary devotion to Bowdoin.

Jorunn Buckleybuckley

Jorunn Buckley has earned a reputation among American and European scholars for her expert publications about the Mandaean gnostic community and for being an active member of the American Academy of Religion for 30 years running. Her human rights activities in support of Mandaeans – a sect that arose in the middle east about the same time as Christianity – have been internationally recognized, including by former President Jimmy Carter.

Buckley studied history of religions, philosophy, and psychology at Oslo University and Bergen University in her native Norway, and then received a Ph.D. in history of religions from the University of Chicago, where she wrote a thesis titled “Spirit Ruha in Mandaean Religion.” Before coming to Bowdoin in 1999, she served on the faculty at MIT, BU, Conn College, Syracuse, Emory, Harvard, UMass Boston, University of North Carolina, Penn State, University of Chicago, and Miami University. At Bowdoin, Buckley has served as chair of her department and taught courses on Near Eastern religions, Hellenistic religions, gender and Islam, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, comparative mystical traditions, heresy, and “Evil in Religious Contexts.”

Buckley has won academic fellowships and grants as well as human rights awards from institutions such as Harvard Divinity School, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Religion, the Sabian Mandaean Association of Australia, the Mandaean Council of the USA, and the Mandaean Union Association. She has written six books and dozens of chapters, articles, and reviews, and has given academic presentations all over the US and Canada as well as in Turkey, Cambodia, the Philippines, the UK, Thailand, Poland, Sweden, Australia, and France.

Known to many at Bowdoin for the memorable Convocation address she delivered in 2012, Buckley is beloved among her colleagues, according to fellow religion professor John Holt, “because of her courage, unconventional and exceptional wit, fair-mindedness, sense of justice, and her resolute commitment to scholarship.”

DeWitt Johnjohn

DeWitt John’s distinguished career in government service has made him a renowned figure in the field of public policy. His nationally recognized book Civic Environmentalism is a keystone text in the discipline, earning him the appellation “Mr. Civic Environmentalism” among environmental scholars. In 2001 he was elected a Fellow of the National Academy for Public Administration, a distinction shared by the likes of Colin Powell and Sandra Day O’Connor.

John received a bachelor’s degree in economics at Harvard, spent time as a research student at the London School of Economics, and earned a master’s in political science at University of Chicago. He then served in several professional positions – including as director of the State Policy Program with the Aspen Institute, Policy Studies Director for Economics, Trade, and Agriculture for the National Governors’ Association, and Director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Research for the State of Colorado – before returning to the University of Chicago to obtain a Ph.D. in political science, with a thesis that won an award for best dissertation in intergovernmental relations. John then became director of the Center for the Economy and the Environment of the National Academy for Public Administration.

Arriving at Bowdoin in 2000, John took charge of the Environmental Studies Program and began teaching courses in both the ES Program and the government department – including introductory environmental studies, climate change and energy, and an advanced seminar in environmental policy and politics. While at the College he remained active in environmental policy. For instance, as a member of the National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology with the EPA from 2010-2014, he co-chaired a working group and authored an in-depth report.

John is valued for his mentorship of students and for his role in energizing environmental studies at Bowdoin. “Much of the present strength of the ES program can be attributed to his dedication, hard work and seriousness of purpose,” said John’s colleague, philosophy professor Larry Simon.

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