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Endowed professorship will teach students to be fair, balanced and open-minded

Two prominent Tacoma area families have funded a $1 million endowed professorship in Holocaust studies at PLU.

The gifts secure the university’s position as one of the premier centers for Holocaust studies in the nation.

The donors are Kurt and Pam Mayer, Joe and Gloria Mayer, Natalie Mayer-Yeager, Nancy Powell, Carol Powell Heller and Harry Heller. Together they have committed both to giving $1 million and to help raise another $1 million to eventually fund a $2 million endowed chair.

The professorship honors the memory of their family and friends who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Robert P. Ericksen ’67, PLU professor of history and an internationally recognized Holocaust scholar, has received the inaugural appointment to theKurt Mayer Professorship in Holocaust Studies.

As the endowment grows it will fund supplemental salary for the Mayer Professor, research and travel related to scholarship, enhanced library resources, student-faculty research fellowship opportunities, coordination of the annual Lemkin Student Essay Contest and the Lemkin Lecture, and an annual Holocaust conference in connection with the Lemkin Lecture.

The contest and lecture take place each year on campus. The first conference was held this year. They are named for Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” and worked for passage of the United Nations genocide convention.

Kurt Mayer, who is a former PLU regent, said through the establishment of this professorship, his family, with the help of the Powell family, hopes that Holocaust studies can teach students to be fair, to be balanced and to be open minded.

“My hope is that the events that killed members of my family, as well as the families of millions of others, will lead PLU students who undertake this course of study to lead productive, tolerant lives and serve as examples to others,” Mayer said.

“Nancy Powell and I have chosen to do this in an effort to reach out and set an example to our own children and to our own community.

“In my 30-year association with PLU, I have learned that relationships that last are built on mutual respect. Relationships require that you strive for a higher understanding of other people’s faith, interests, needs and feelings. Relationships require a sincere commitment to make them work.

“No matter what our differences may be, we are all created in the image of the same God. Let us each find God in our own ways.”
Nancy Powell said that her family mission is to teach the history and lessons of the Holocaust to students and educators of all races and religious beliefs throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“We want to prevent its recurrence and create an understanding and mutual respect for future generations,” she said. “Our support is in honor of all the millions of people who lost their lives in the Holocaust and survivors such as John and Georgette Heller, parents of Harry Heller.”

According to PLU Provost Patricia O’Connell Killen, for more than 30 years PLU has been internationally known for Holocaust studies and known also for its close relationship with the local Jewish community. Judaism has been taught in the PLU religion department by local rabbis all the way back to Rabbi Rosenthal.

“Establishing endowed professorships not only allows the university to make a visible commitment to scholarly and teaching work that is rooted in its mission, it’s also a way to highlight the academic excellence of the university through the talent of the faculty who receive this recognition,” Killen said.

The Mayer Professorship is the second such faculty endowment at PLU. In 2004 a gift from the Benson Family Foundation of Portland, Ore., created the first fully funded endowed chair at PLU. The Benson Family Chair in Business and Economic History is held by E. Wayne Carp, a nationally recognized authority on the history of adoption.

“The Mayer Professorship allows the university to continue to advance its scholarship and teaching in an area that has been considered important for a long time. Particularly with the work of a former colleague, Christopher Browning, and now continued by Robert Ericksen,” Killen said.

History professor Walter Schnackenberg first emphasized the study of the Holocaust at PLU. When he died, PLU sought a successor and hired Christopher Browning. While at PLU he published the groundbreaking “Ordinary Men.” The book highlighted the “ordinariness” of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, who were nonetheless willing to kill. The work changed the way Holocaust scholars looked at their field.

Browning left PLU in 1999 and now holds the Frank Porter Graham Chair in History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

He was replaced by Ericksen.

In November, Ericksen delivered the highly prestigious Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Annual Lecture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “Theologians Under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch,” which has been made into a documentary film.

“That PLU is a church-related university with a dedication to Holocaust studies is important and unique,” Ericksen said.
“Chris Browning built such momentum here and created this tremendous attention for PLU. Now when people throughout the United States and in Europe hear Pacific Lutheran University, they recognize it as an important center in Holocaust studies,” he said.

Ericksen’s work deals with the ways in which theologians and Protestant church leaders participated in the Nazi state and were tempted to endorse, even enthusiastically support, the Nazi state, creating a certain complicity in the Holocaust.

“And that is an unpleasant story, of course, if the Christian church would simply prefer to bury or hide the past,” Ericksen said.
“When President Anderson and the PLU history department were willing to bring someone like me to raise these challenges, they recognized that was an appropriate thing for a church-related university to do. I appreciate their support very much,” he said.

“This is a monumental occasion for the university,” President Loren J. Anderson said.

“Holocaust Studies is not a new idea at PLU. It is an area of academic distinction and excellence that has been built over the past three decades – made possible by the commitment and support of the university at all levels, by the remarkable leadership of professors Christopher Browning and Robert Ericksen, and by the support of many close friends of the university, as well as members of the Jewish community.

“And now we know that this distinction is secure for the university. We will be forever in debt to the Mayer and Powell families and the other donors who have made this professorship possible,” he said.

Professor of History Robert P. Ericksen ’67 will be PLU’s first Kurt Mayer Professor in Holocaust Studies.