During University of Tennessee at Chattanooga undergraduate commencement ceremonies on Saturday, Dec. 17, at McKenzie Arena, Chancellor Steven R. Angle introduced Dr. Michelle Deardorff as the first recipient of a newly established award.
Angle, who assumed his role as the 17th leader of the University on July 1, 2013, created the Chancellor’s Medal of Excellence to commemorate his 10th year at the University. He said the medal would be bestowed from time to time.
Before presenting the medal to Deardorff, who gave the charge to graduates, Angle said, “This is not the introduction she’s expecting.”
“Acknowledging the above and beyond the call of duty contributions is something I think we need to do,” he said, “so I have taken the liberty of establishing the Chancellor’s Medal of Excellence. It is my intention that this honor, the highest award I will distribute, will be given periodically at the chancellor’s discretion to a faculty, staff, alumnus or community member who has made extraordinary contributions to our University, to the character of the University, to the core of who we are.
“The first medal will be presented today.”
Angle said he wanted to publicly highlight the work of Deardorff, the Adolph S. Ochs professor of government and department head of Political Science and Public Service, calling her “someone who has clearly distinguished herself” in her role as a faculty member, researcher, mentor and department head.
“She has touched our campus with intentional impact exactly when and where we needed it,” he said. “She sets the bar for many of us on what it means to be a Moc.
“Professor Deardorff has played a tremendous role in revitalizing the department she leads and helping to forge ties between her faculty and students and the broader campus community,” Angle continued. “She has mentored young faculty and students and—at key times—provided me and other members of my executive leadership team with wise counsel.
“And she is a truth-teller. She doesn’t tell me what I want to hear; she tells me what I need to hear.”
Deardorff, who joined the UTC faculty in 2013, teaches constitutional law, judicial politics and political philosophy. Her teaching and research have focused on the constitutional and statutory protections surrounding gender and race and explored the insights provided by political theory.
Before coming to UTC, she was a professor of political science at Jackson State, a historically black university in Mississippi, from 2003 to 2013. Her first faculty position was at Millikin University, a small private college in Illinois, from 1991 to 2003—where she served as the Griswold Distinguished Professor of Political Science for two terms.
Angle said Deardorff has cultivated diversity and manifested inclusion. At the same time, she has been publishing research and providing leadership service to her discipline’s most prestigious national organization—the American Political Science Association.
Deardorff is a founding faculty member of the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy, a coalition of academics who promote civic engagement and popular sovereignty by examining the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Her 20-year engagement with these colleagues provided pedagogical resources, workshops, tours and two museums—all designed to help K-12 educators, community college and university faculty, students and community members understand the promise of democracy.
“As if this weren’t enough,” he said, “over the last couple of years, as our campus has attempted to reckon with the realities of racism in our society and within our own community, Professor Deardorff—on her own initiative—brought her deep expertise in the field of civil discourse to her development of an ambitious series of book studies that she then provided to interested faculty and staff from across the campus.”
Deardorff is currently working on Race and the Law in the United States: A Contemporary Perspective, which is under contract with Cambridge University Press and is planned for publication in 2024.
“Using her own time and talent, she has led many study groups through challenging but crucial conversations about topics that many of us find uncomfortable; one of these groups was with our UTC Executive Leadership Team,” Angle said. “She knew, as do we all, that we owe it to each other and to our students to do all we can to become better: better friends, better colleagues, better teachers, better citizens, better humans, better Mocs.
“Words will never express the depth of my gratitude to Professor Deardorff for the leadership that she has shown, and the medal that I present to her now is but a token of our debt to her. It will endure. More importantly, so will Professor Deardorff’s impact on our campus.”
After the commencement ceremony, Deardorff admitted she was still surprised about being the award recipient.
“That’s never why you do these things, but it’s always wonderful to know that the work you do has an impact on other people,” she said. “You do it because you think it’s important and you think it’s right, but it’s meaningful to know that it has reverberations beyond your own intents.”
The first medals, struck in a limited quantity, were designed by Stephen Rumbaugh, UTC executive director of brand management and creative content.