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ASU English professor receives prestigious award for service to profession

Neal A. Lester
January 16, 2015

Recognizing him as “an innovative scholar, teacher, public intellectual and institutional administrator whose work has the rare power to reach far beyond his own university,” the Association of Departments of English, an affiliate of the Modern Language Association of America, has given ASU professor Neal A. Lester its most prestigious award.

Lester was presented with the 2015 Francis Andrew March Award by the Association of Departments of English (ADE) in Vancouver, Canada, on Jan. 10. Lester is the Foundation Professor of English and founding director of ASU’s award-winning Project Humanities.

The award is named for Francis March (1825-1911), professor of English at Lafayette College and the first professor of English in America. Established in 1984, the award honors those who have committed exceptional service to the profession of English.

“The executive committee of the Association of Departments of English selected Neal Lester for the Francis March Award because of his outstanding service to the profession,” said Kent Cartwright, ADE executive committee member.

“I first became acquainted with Neal when he led a memorable session on building alumni relations at an ADE summer seminar," Cartwright said. "It was immediately clear to me that Neal was way ahead of the rest of us in appreciating the importance of external audiences and devising strategies for reaching them. He generously shared all his experiences and ideas. Such engagement, generosity and sense of public mission has been the hallmark of Neal’s leadership.”

The award is given occasionally, as appropriate nominees come to the committee’s attention. Prior recipients include Wayne C. Booth, University of Chicago, 1991; Patricia Meyer Spacks, University of Virginia, 1996; J. Hillis Miller, University of California, Irvine, 2001; Andrea Lunsford, Stanford University, 2002; and Gerald Graff, University of Illinois, 2011.

Lester said the award holds a special significance for him.

“This pursuit of ‘meaningfulness, integrity and truth’ is at the heart of the work I have tried to do these many years – in my teaching, in my research and in my service,” Lester said. “Whether it was sitting on advisory boards; evaluating proposals and manuscripts; conducting program reviews; evaluating annual performance reviews as a department chair; evaluating tenure and promotion cases as a dean or as an external reviewer; co-facilitating ADE new chairs workshops; presenting or paneling at ADE summer institutes; or counseling, calming or reassuring anxious graduate students about the job market at these annual conventions, for me, this service work is meaningful and reminds me of the passion that brought me to and sustains me in this profession.”

His passion has also impacted and sustained his peers, according to Karin Westman, an English professor from Kansas State University and ADE member.

“As a co-leader with Neal for the ADE's New Chairs Workshop for the past three years, I have watched Neal in action, helping faculty tap into skills they didn't realize they had for their new administrative roles,” Westman said. “I have also benefited indirectly from his insights, strategies and acumen about the best ways to help others succeed. He is richly deserving of the March Award."

Lester and Project Humanities have received major accolades since the project was founded in 2010, demonstrating the rapidly growing success and impact of this university initiative.

In 2014, Lester received the Roy Wilkins Community Service Award from the East Valley National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the inaugural Key of Excellence Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the Juliana Yoder Friend of the Humanities Award from Arizona Humanities and a written commendation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama for the Humanity 101 effort.