To the victors comes the recognition.
Three members of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga family—Executive Director of the Disability Resource Center Michelle Rigler, Associate Dean of the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies David Rausch, who also is a professor and director of the Learning and Leadership program, and Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Abeer Mustafa—are being honored this week for the work they do by UT System President Randy Body and his Be One UT cabinet.
Rigler, Rausch and Mustafa are among 14 award winners from across the UT System announced as recipients of 2023 President’s Award recipients, the highest accolade an employee can receive from the UT System.
The award winners will be honored at a special luncheon in Nashville on Thursday, Aug. 3. President’s Award winners receive commemorative plaques and a monetary award of $3,000.
The President’s Awards were established in 2016 to annually recognize the accomplishments of faculty and staff from across the UT System with the mission to educate, discover and connect. Award recipients represent UTC, UT Knoxville, UT Health Science Center, UT Martin, UT Institute of Agriculture, UT Institute for Public Service and UT System Administration.
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There’s a poster on the wall of the Disability Resource Center that reads, “Diversity Without Disability Isn’t Diverse Enough.”
It’s more than a saying; it’s a mantra.
“It means so much to me that I was recognized for diversity work because far too often, people don’t focus on disability as part of diversity,” said Dr. Michelle Rigler, who won the President’s Award in the “Embrace Diversity” category—which honors an individual who respects individual and organizational uniqueness. “That’s what I’ve been working on for well over a decade—to be at the table to talk about disability and the impact within the diversity community.
“To me, it’s making people feel like they belong. That’s why this center is so important.”
Rigler, the Disability Resource Center (DRC) executive director since 2004, was cited in her President’s Award nomination letter for recognizing the uniqueness of each student and embracing the chance to make a powerful difference in their lives. In addition to managing the daily delivery of services supporting students with a wide range of disabilities, she is recognized by advocates and allies as a respected authority on autism.
Her influence can be seen in the creation of Mosaic, a comprehensive UTC program with many facets created to meet the needs of degree-seeking students on the autism spectrum. It was developed in response to the demands and needs of autistic students, and over the past decade, it has grown to become one of the most renowned and imitated university-based programs in the nation. Mosaic students’ retention and graduation rates have outperformed those of the general student body, making UTC a top choice for students with autism.
“We have an incredible staff both in the DRC and Mosaic that works so hard to spread the message that disability is part of diversity and that we need to embrace it and welcome it as part of a person’s identity and part of their intersectionality—and not shame people anymore,” said Rigler, who received an Ed.D. from UTC in 2013. “We just embrace that everybody’s different and that what we want to get to is a place of equity where people are getting what they need.”
“The work we do is hard, so to be recognized for it is really affirming.”
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What does it mean to Dr. David Rausch to be considered nimble and innovative?
For that matter, what does nimble and innovative mean in higher education?
“I think Randy Boyd exemplifies this,” said Rausch, who received the President’s Award in the “Nimble and Innovative” category—which honors an individual who inspires creative and transformational action. “You listen to the customers and what is it they want—and then you go do that.
“It’s interesting. Our program, the folks I get to work with and the people we call our students—or participants or candidates, depending on the program—are here because they desire to accomplish something.”
A U.S. Navy veteran and adult learner, Rausch completed his undergraduate education at the University of Alabama before earning an MBA from Samford University in Alabama and a Ph.D. from Andrews University in Michigan. “My schooling,” he said, “was during my 30s and 40s—from working on undergrad to finishing my master’s and doctorate and then doing a little post-doc in technology.”
Rausch, a member of the UTC faculty since 2009, was one of the architects in creating and designing the UTC Bachelor of Applied Science: Applied Leadership program, which serves contemporary students with previous college, military or work experience who want to complete their undergraduate degrees. All courses are offered online, which is a necessary feature for these adult students who cannot travel to a physical campus due to day jobs.
As director of the University’s Learning and Leadership Programs, he has added an essential online component to their curriculum, helping adult learners with full-time jobs earn a Ph.D. or an Ed.D.
“Contemporary learners have a different set of expectations,” he said. “A working adult learner, perhaps with a family, clearly with a career and other obligations and priorities, is trying to fit in their learning, their schooling, their education.
“They all have expectations of being able to be much more flexible. With that in mind, we said, ‘Well, that’s great,’ because we want to find a way to create programs, deliveries and faculty engagement with them that allows them to accomplish it when they need it—without holding them hostage to a structure that doesn’t work for them and where they are now.”
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Dr. Abeer Mustafa was selected for the President’s Award in the “Excel in All We Do” category, honoring an individual who commits to continuous improvement and outstanding performance.
In her role as associate vice chancellor for student affairs, Mustafa oversees Housing and Residence Life at UTC. Housing arrangements are crucial for recruiting and retaining students, and her nomination letter praised Mustafa’s attention to detail, future-focused outlook, planning expertise and dedication to the success of the University and its students.
“I was shocked and pleasantly surprised that my colleagues on campus wrote such wonderful words,” Mustafa said. “In the short time that I’ve been here, I’ve been successful because of the support and collegiality I received from UTC partners and colleagues here on campus.”
She arrived at UTC in 2018 after previous work stints at Rice University in Texas, the University of Houston, Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, North Carolina State University and California State University, Chico. Her background also includes spending four years in the U.S. Army’s 56th Medical Battalion.
“Of all the places I’ve ever worked, this is the most unique environment. Everyone here is committed to student success and each other’s success, which is just incredible,” she said.”
A vital initiative fostered under Mustafa’s leadership is UTC’s Residential Learning Communities (RLCs). Representing all four academic colleges, each in a single housing unit, the RLCs have increased retention rates by connecting freshmen and prospective students with others who share their academic programs or interests, creating welcoming, inclusive communities and a sense of belonging.
In 2021, Mustafa recognized the need to support the development of aspiring female leaders and those in leadership on campus. She helped bring together partners from Human Resources, Information Technology and Academic Affairs to create LeadHERship—an initiative that engages women on campus through critical learning opportunities, networking and mentorship.
“The reason we’ve been so successful at every program we’ve initiated,” she said, “was because after reaching out to faculty, staff, students and colleagues, they show up with their sleeves rolled up—ready to help and see the project through to the finish line.”
Mustafa called winning a President’s Award humbling, but “It’s not about me. It’s the invisible line and the people behind me.
“It’s ‘Excel in All We Do,’ and ‘we’ is the plural for everyone that has helped us be successful at UTC. I’m proud to represent the campus, but this award is for everyone here.”