Faculty gift honors family commitment to higher education

John Kerr and Kimberly Chung, faculty members in the Department of Community Sustainability, have given a $375,000 gift to create a teaching assistantship named in honor of John's parents, Malcolm and Ann Kerr.

John Kerr and Kimberly Chung.

As the premier land-grant institution, MSU is rooted in the principles of teaching, research and outreach. This work extends across the globe, confronting challenges such as poverty, food insecurity, environmental sustainability and beyond.

Although never affiliated with MSU, Malcolm and Ann Kerr shared the same passion for education and international development. Ann still does, while Malcolm’s devotion lives on posthumously through his family.

One of the couple’s four children, John, is a professor and associate chair in the MSU Department of Community Sustainability (CSUS). He has committed his career to teaching and research that enhances the agriculture and natural resources sectors in developing countries.

John, along with his wife—Kimberly Chung, an associate professor in CSUS—is honoring his parents through a $375,000 gift, that establishes the Malcolm and Ann Kerr Award for Excellence in Scholarship.

Each year, the award will provide a Ph.D. student in CSUS with a one-semester teaching assistantship that supports tuition, fees, health insurance and a stipend.

“I’ve always been interested in making a gift like this,” John said. “We accomplish two goals, in that we honor the work my parents have done, and we continue the cycle forward by offering opportunities for current students to teach. Hopefully, that can act as a springboard for their careers.”

Students can apply for the award during the fall for consideration the following academic year. The first award will be presented this year for use in 2018-2019. A committee of CSUS faculty (excluding Kerr or Chung) will select from a pool of applicants who have demonstrated scholarly excellence and a desire to pursue a career in academia.

The awardee will either teach a course or act as a teaching assistant, depending on his or her experience and the needs of the department.

Due to allocation of teaching resources, Ph.D. students in CSUS and several other departments have few opportunities to teach. Most students are funded through external research grants, but such funds rarely support teaching.

“Some of our Ph.D. students are interested in becoming faculty members at institutions of higher education upon graduation, so they need teaching experience,” Chung said. “That makes them a well-rounded candidate. Because of funding challenges, we haven’t really had that in the past. This gift is closing some of those gaps.”

While never expecting to make a gift of this magnitude, he and Chung are grateful to be in the position to do so and are planning an additional gift in the future.

Promoting cross-cultural understanding

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to American parents who taught at the American University of Beirut (AUB) for 40 years, Malcolm Kerr was exposed early in life to the complex nature of the Middle East.

His parents met in Turkey while rescuing Armenians targeted by the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I. They soon moved to Beirut and began tenures at AUB.

Malcolm and Ann Kerr had met in Beirut while he was pursuing a master’s degree from AUB and she was studying abroad. Much like John’s grandparents, Malcolm and Ann made increasing cultural understanding and peace their mission.

After Malcolm Kerr earned his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, the family settled in Beirut for a short time. Three of the couple’s four children, including John, were born at the AUB hospital.

Malcolm Kerr’s expertise in Middle Eastern studies later brought him to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he worked for 20 years. He spent time at the American University in Cairo as well, but his dream job was to become AUB president. That opportunity arose in 1982.

Lebanon was relatively peaceful at the time he was hired, but war soon returned. Anti-American sentiment flared after U.S. military intervention in the country, and Malcolm Kerr became a high-profile target. He was assassinated in 1984 near his office on AUB’s campus.

Since Malcolm’s death, Ann Kerr has carried on their legacy through a number of initiatives that keep their ideals moving forward. She lives in California, serves as coordinator of the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program at UCLA, and teaches a class on cross-cultural understanding to undergraduates.

She continues to be involved with AUB, now as an emeritus member of the board of trustees.

“My parents would have fit in very well at MSU,” John said. “When I first came here in 1999, I was really excited about the combination of the land-grant mission and the international focus. I have had international ties since I was a kid, and that’s thanks to my parents.

“A strong emphasis for them was teaching and research as a way to expand minds and solve problems that are important to real people. This gift prepares others to carry on the work that was so important to them, and I know they would appreciate that.”

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit www.canr.msu.edu/inthefield. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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