Gavin Young
KU Office of Public Affairs

KU names three new University Distinguished Professors

Thu, 06/26/2014

LAWRENCE — A captivating opera singer, a groundbreaking geoarchaeologist and a renowned ecologist have been awarded the University of Kansas’ most prestigious faculty honor.

Faculty members Joyce Castle in the School of Music, Rolfe Mandel in anthropology and geoscience, and Jorge Soberón in ecology and evolutionary biology have been appointed University Distinguished Professors, an esteemed title bestowed on only about 60 individuals at the entire university.

Castle, Mandel and Soberón were officially appointed by Jeffrey S. Vitter, provost and executive vice chancellor. Castle and Soberón’s appointments are effective with the start of the fall 2014 semester, and Mandel’s appointment was effective June 8.

"The title of University Distinguished Professor is a truly special honor, reserved for only a select few of our finest faculty,” Vitter said. “Professors Castle, Mandel and Soberón are three of our most esteemed faculty, and their receiving this title is a reflection of their many accomplishments and contributions to KU, ranging from excellence in the classroom to ground-breaking research.”

Vitter noted the broad variance in academic disciplines was a testament to KU’s stature as a comprehensive research institution. While the three distinguished faculty members don’t share much in common in research, they have a common bond in their commitment to excellence for their students and for KU.

As Robert Walzel, dean of the School of Music, said of Castle, “She is, by far, the most acclaimed musical artist to ever serve on the faculty. Just as a scientist or humanist develops their reputation through research and publication, a creative artist does the same through their performances and recordings. Students come to KU from around the world to study with her.”

“The undergraduate education in voice and theater that I received at KU provided the fundamentals that I have drawn upon throughout my career," said Castle, who is currently in Brazil reprising her Grammy Award-winning performance as the Old Lady in Bernstein’s "Candide" with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. "Perhaps more importantly, the KU faculty encouraged me and nurtured my dreams. It has been a great gift to return to campus as a professor of voice and contribute to the development of students in the School of Music while supporting their aspirations ­– essentially, to 'make their gardens grow.' It is a tremendous honor to be recognized as a University Distinguished Professor and one that brings my lifelong KU experience full circle." 

Danny Anderson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said of Mandel, “He strives to support the growth and success of both colleagues and students. His service record is truly extensive, stretching across units within the university, across the state of Kansas, throughout the nation and internationally.”

Mandel said he feels honored to join KU’s distinguished group of scholars. “I was at a loss of words, which is unusual for me, when informed of this honor," he said. "I'm fortunate to have had the opportunity to do such interesting and important work, and I'm especially proud of my record of applying my knowledge to real-word situations. I have spent much of my career applying the geosciences to archaeology, and now I am turning to other issues with global implications, such as understanding how future climate change may affect modern landscapes and, most importantly, humans."

Anderson noted Soberón’s record extended beyond his nine years at KU. “His record is clearly one of a distinguished scholar, mentor and teacher but seems to go well beyond his own research discipline, having a global benefit. At KU, he brings the experience of someone who has been among the most influential in developing his field and someone who has had a major influence on public policy.”

Soberón joined KU in 2005 and has carried with him advice he received from the provost at that time, David Shulenburger. “One phrase I have not forgotten is, ‘We expect you to help us to form good citizens,’” Soberón said. “These words have been in my mind since then, and I have reflected a lot about their meaning. They mean that you are expected to do much more than just teach good classes, and I have tried my best. I am thankful to this marvelous university for giving me the opportunity to help my colleagues and authorities in this most-important task.”

Through 2012, new University Distinguished Professors were appointed only when a position became vacant. KU has since opted to accept nominations for University Distinguished professorships on a biannual basis. The University Committee on Distinguished Professorships reviews nominations and forwards its selections to the provost for final approval. Major criteria for selection include record of scholarship, participation in university affairs and professional organizations, service to community and the success of their students, colleagues and institutions.

The first Distinguished Professors were established at KU in 1958. That year, four were awarded. In 1963, the first University Distinguished Professors were announced. A complete list is available online.

Joyce Castle

Joyce Castle is a professor of voice at the University of Kansas, as well as a globally renowned mezzo-soprano who’s had an acclaimed opera career spanning four decades. Revered for her versatility as an artist, Castle’s operatic repertoire now includes nearly 140 opera roles in works by composers ranging from Bernstein to Wagner. Critics worldwide have recognized her unique combination of a voice, profound dramatic skills, and superb musicianship.

Castle is a graduate of the University of Kansas, where she received a B.F.A., and the Eastman School of Music, where she earned a Masters of Music degree and was honored with the 2004 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Joyce Castle made her professional opera debut in 1970 at the San Francisco Opera as Siebel in Charles Gounod's “Faust.” Since then, she has been in demand worldwide for both opera and concert appearances. Joyce Castle was a leading artist at the New York City Opera for 25 years and performed at the Metropolitan Opera for 14 seasons. She has appeared with every major opera company in the United States, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, Washington National Opera, and the Houston Grand Opera, where she became the first woman to portray Mrs. Lovett in an operatic staged production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Her remarkable career was profiled in the June 2010 issue of Opera News.

Castle’s portrayal of leading roles in contemporary opera has brought her singular success. Characterized as “a compelling actress in both comedy and pathos” in Michael Torke and A.R. Gurney’s world premiere opera “Central Park” at Glimmerglass Opera (televised nationwide on WNET – Channel 13 and recorded for release by Ecstatic Records), acclaimed for her heralded as a “chillingly malevolent” Madame Flora in “The Medium” (released by Cedille Records), and recognized for her “marvelously sardonic” Claire Zakanassian in the New York premiere of Von Einem’s “The Visit of the Old Lady” (in a New York City Opera production that was mounted for her), Castle has employed her formidable vocal and theatrical gifts to sculpt distinctive and memorable characterizations.

International concert engagements have included appearances at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Wolf Akademie of Stuttgart, the Radio-Symphonieorchester in Vienna, the Accademia de Santa Cecilia in Rome, and with the London Symphony Orchestra. Closer to home, she has performed with orchestra at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra, at the Ravinia Festival with the Chicago Symphony, at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony, and at Carnegie Hall.

In December 2005, Castle gave the world premiere of “Statuesque,” a vocal chamber work composed by Jake Heggie to poetry written by Gene Scheer. The work was commissioned by the University of Kansas and performed with Mr. Heggie at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center), at Roosevelt University and at Chicago’s Cultural Center in Chicago, as well as at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. A recording of “Statuesque” titled “Flesh & Stone Songs of Jake Heggie” was released on the Americus Records label and is a record-selling disc benefiting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

The mezzo-soprano celebrated her 40th anniversary as a performing artist in the 2010-2011 season with performances of a new vocal chamber work, “The Hawthorn Tree,” written for her by National Medal of Arts and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom. In the program note, the composer characterized her artistry: “Joyce Castle is one of our time’s most incandescent acting singers; she can make you laugh out loud or scare you to death by turns, as she wishes.” Reviewing the premiere, Opera News wrote, “Castle is a musician and actor of the highest quality: her ability to convey a thought and its exact opposite at the same time make her delivery of a song compelling and immediate.” The cycle was given its premiere with members of The Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Morgan Library in New York with additional performances at the Brooklyn Museum, DIA Beacon, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She also performed “The Hawthorn Tree” on the Cliburn at the Modern series in Texas, with The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and at the Lied Center at the University of Kansas. Recorded for the Americus label, it will be released in fall 2014.

In addition to her incredible career and performance credentials, Castle has a remarkable record of dedication to her students, both at KU and beyond. Joseph Colanari, artistic director of Western Australia Opera and music director of The Glimmerglass Festival, describes Castle’s “unique mentorship to the next generation of great singing artists,” finding her choice to become a professor of music “no surprise.” Meanwhile, Darren Woods, general director of the Fort Worth Opera, rightly acknowledges how Castle’s continued immersion and success in professional opera is an invaluable resource for her students. “The young artists of the University of Kansas are far richer in their knowledge of how to pursue an opera career than most of their colleagues [from other schools] because of Joyce and her ability to connect them to the world of the opera business,” Woods said.

But even with all these remarkable accomplishments and appraisals from her colleagues, perhaps words alone can’t suitably convey Castle’s impact. In fact, Scott Murphy, Castle’s longtime colleague in the KU School of Music, had this to say of her in his nomination letter: “If I could submit anything to seal my nomination, it would be a mid-row seat in Swarthout Recital Hall during one of Joyce’s annual faculty recitals. … A live performance by Joyce Castle is a transformative event: she renovates that hall every time she performs there, transporting her audience not only to the Metropolitan, to Paris, to Broadway, but to places sublime, heart-wrenching and transcendent.”

Rolfe Mandel

When top scholars in the field describe Rolfe Mandel’s scholarship, they use words like “brilliant,” “revolutionary” and “foundational.” Students describe his classes as “fabulous” and “full of 'eureka' moments.” Meanwhile, his colleagues would say he’s “at the heart and soul of archaeological geology.”

A professor in the Department of Anthropology and a senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey, Mandel has confirmed his status as an internationally recognized practitioner of geoarchaeology, a multidisciplinary approach that blends geography, geology and other earth sciences to examine topics that inform archaeological knowledge and thought.

Through his systematic program of field research, Mandel has developed accurate predictive models for locating archaeological materials and for assessing the integrity of archaeological sites once they are found. Archaeological evidence is often deeply buried, and this makes Mandel’s predictive and evaluative techniques critical to effective archaeological investigations.

His research is both intensely focused and expansive in scope. It includes studies of the earliest Pleistocene (Ice Age) human groups that lived in Kansas and the Great Plains and, farther from home, he studies the ancient climate and land surface changes in Serbia and is investigating the ancient hydrology of Afghanistan.

How prominent is his work? In 2004, a colleague of Mandel’s wrote in Geotimes magazine that “Mandel’s research into early Americans promises to increase immensely our understanding about the peopling of the Plains. Mandel has changed the field of archaeology, and it will be exciting to see what comes next.” In 2010, another colleague commented during an awards ceremony that Mandel’s work had revolutionized the way he thought about archaeology. In short, Mandel has changed the way hundreds of students and colleagues understand and look at the Great Plains landscape.

The geographic scope of Mandel's research and the level of detailed investigation are unparalleled. His role on the fields of archaeology and geology are widely recognized and include his editorship of the flagship publication Geoarchaeology: An International Journal. Through more than a decade of dedicated editorship of the journal, Mandel’s international reputation has been firmly established. He also edited the acclaimed volume Geoarchaeology in the Great Plains. He has published regularly and widely in prestigious journals, including Science, Geomorphology, American Antiquity and Geoarchaeology. Currently, his research includes putting the finishing touches on a multivolume work covering the geoarchaeological record of Kansas. These publications will reflect the culmination of over a decade of focused research that is unprecedented in its detail and scope, and it establishes a benchmark for future research.

Mandel has also received significant external grant and contract funding, including support from the National Geographic Society, National Park Service, National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense. As director of the endowed Odyssey Geoarchaeology Program at KU, his extraordinary publication record and leadership have been rewarded with the recent commitment of a $4 million enhancement to the Odyssey research fund.

Mandel is a highly effective teacher. He is engaging and thoughtful, he cares deeply about his students, and he works to make them part of his research. He has given dozens of students the opportunity to go places and work in localities they would otherwise have never seen. As a result, his graduate students have gone on to significant careers in academia, government and consulting. Mandel was a recipient of the 2011 Center for Teaching Excellence Award as well as the as the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences 2009 John C. Wright Graduate Mentor Award.

Jorge Soberón

Soberón is a research scientist at the Biodiversity Institute and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. A world-renowned scholar in interdisciplinary biodiversity science and ecology, he is acclaimed for his creativity, novelty and synthesis across theoretical and empirical studies. His nomination packet for appointment as a University Distinguished Professor includes letters of support from a Nobel Prize winner, a former director of the National Science Foundation, members of the National Academy of Sciences and other luminaries in international science and policy.

Beginning with his appointment as executive secretary of Mexico’s national biodiversity commission in 1992, Soberón’s scope of research has encompassed global biodiversity and ecology and how the knowledge gained from this research could best inform local, national and international science and social policy. His specific research themes include theoretical and computational modeling of species’ richness across landscapes, as well as the past, present and future geographic distributions of species under scenarios of environmental change as well as the processes underlying those biodiversity patterns. His body of work has established him as a worldwide authority in these arenas, and his ideas and prototypes are now the gold standard in modeling and forecasting the richness and spatial distribution of plants and animals across habitats.

Soberón is co-author on the first synthetic book on ecological niche modeling, and his work on biodiversity patterns is revising the metrics used by the global community. His research has been funded by major grants from the NIH, NSF and Microsoft Research, and his papers have been published in the highest-ranking journals in his field.

Soberón’s work merges KU’s four strategic initiative themes. His research on environmental patterns and processes develops and utilizes the most advanced analytics and computational modeling tools for forecasting biotic phenomena, including the potential spread of invasive species, disease vectors and emerging diseases under different scenarios of climate change, and the social consequences to populations and habitats in different geographic regions. As such, his work is creating at KU the interdisciplinary research synergies that society needs to tackle the grand environmental challenges of the 21st century.

For example, during the past 15 years, he has grappled with the question how genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly crops, will affect native organisms in surrounding ecosystems. His research has similarly helped foster international policy regarding invasive species, cultural heritage, local economies and indigenous rights. More recently, he has also addressed Kansas-specific issues, such as prairie conservation, science education in the state and international educational opportunities at KU.

From his academic beginnings as a young professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), Soberón has been a superb teacher and mentor of students. At UNAM, he successfully mentored three doctoral students, three master's students and eight senior undergraduate thesis students. Some of his former students are now in academic posts; others serve as director of conservation of the Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability at the U.S. National Zoological Park and as regional director of Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas. Because of his record, Soberón was asked to serve as coordinator of graduate studies for UNAM’s science faculty.

In his second academic career at KU, Soberón is an accomplished teacher at undergraduate and graduate levels, team-teaching courses in ecology, conservation and wildlife biology, methods in quantitative biogeography, biogeography and topics in environmental studies for the IGERT program. He also developed his own courses in quantitative ecology for graduate students and international environmental policy for both undergraduate and graduate students. In one of his major teaching innovations, he leads an annual, year-round, interdepartmental graduate student/faculty working group in spatial ecology, which, to date, has resulted in six major papers published with students. Such teaching investments are well beyond what is expected given his appointments and speak well of his commitment to both the education and research training of the next generation of scientists.

While at KU, Soberón has led a paradigm shift among international biodiversity researchers to adopt open data-sharing, making species taxonomic data, occurrence data and environmental data freely accessible to the broader scientific and educational communities. In this vein, he was elected unanimously in October 2013 by more than 30 member countries as first vice-chair of the Executive Committee of the Governing Board of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development intergovernmental platform.

As two of his nominators conclude in their nomination letter: “Professor Soberón is the quintessential distinguished professor, meeting and exceeding its expectations in character and career. He is a world-renowned researcher; he has international stature as a statesman for science, policy and environmental issues; since coming to KU, his achievements in teaching, training graduate students and course offerings have well exceeded what his position requires, and he has provided wise counsel and insightful guidance to both the Biodiversity Institute and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“Indeed, when the history of this science is written, KU and Professor Soberón will be credited with helping to develop and demonstrate ecological niche modeling as a powerful tool for predicting and testing environmental phenomena – a tool now adopted by biodiversity scientists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists and natural resource managers worldwide.”

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