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Xavier Magazine | April 27, 2017

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Honor Thy Father

Dinners at Roger Fortin’s home were always big family affairs. With six mouths to feed on a history professor’s salary, they weren’t always extravagant. But they were special. They were one of the few moments during the day when everyone came together from all their different directions and settled into a single place, together as one.

On occasion, the dinners were also celebratory. At various periods throughout his 40-year career at Xavier, the longtime history professor and former provost would be recognized for some outstanding achievement, and the observance of the feat turned dinner into a festival.

And those moments left their mark on the memories of the family. Or at least on Michael Fortin, the second oldest of the clan.

“Many of my young memories were of my father, working hard and on occasion being rewarded for going above and beyond,” he says. “That was a big deal. All of us remember those moments.”

The lasting memories were so strong, in fact, that Michael wanted to do something to recognize and honor his dad upon his retirement as Xavier’s provost last year. Something that would give other families the chance to experience those same moments. So the 1985 computer science graduate, who is now vice president in charge of the Windows operating system at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., worked with Kerry Murphy from the University’s development office to find a way to help others recreate those suppertime celebrations. What they came up with is the Roger A. Fortin Award for Outstanding Teaching and Scholarship in the Humanities—an annual award that honors faculty members in the humanities.

The winner receives $10,000. Unlike other teaching awards, however, the money granted from the Fortin Award isn’t tied to conducting specific research or being applied to the classroom. It’s cash. No strings. No demands. No requirements. It’s available for use however the recipient desires—academics, a vacation in Australia, a special family dinner.

“Most of these people could make a living at anything, but they chose to dedicate their lives to teaching, to educating students,” says Michael. “That’s a special calling. They chose what actually matters. I remember my dad working tirelessly at it. So I didn’t like the idea of tying it to things like that puts limits on people.”

The award is focused on those who teach in the humanities—those fundamental programs that colleges were built upon—history, the classics, modern languages, English, philosophy. Theology was once seen as a capstone subject—what students learned after they knew it all. But in today’s era of specialization and make-as-much-money-as-you-can values, the humanities seem to have lost their emphasis among students. The well-roundedness that comes as a result of their learning has been flattened. And the ability to attract and retain professors in those areas has become increasingly difficult.

“I feel like the humanities can be overlooked and today’s world,” says Michael. “If this can attract or retain some of the faculty in the humanities, it’s well worth it.”

Each fall department chairs, faculty and student nominate candidates from the roughly 50 tenured faculty in the humanities programs, and a committee of four faculty members and one humanities student created by the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences selects the winner, which is announced at a public event in the spring. The award goes to a “teacher-scholar who—in the judgment of students and peers—is excellent to outstanding in her or his teaching and—in the judgment of the faculty—shows evidence of scholarship that is recognized and given positive evaluations by the scholarly community.”

It took nearly a year to create the endowment and hammer out many of the details—the nomination criteria, the selection process, the long-term process so it outlives those who are on campus now. And it wasn’t easy keeping it a secret.

“Dad was aware of that fact that we were working on something, but he wasn’t sure what,” says Michael. “He kept prying for information. When we finally told him, he was very excited and proud, but also very measured.”

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