Penn State professors emeritus activate professorships early

Anne Louise Cropp and Tom Joudrey
June 25, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Across the nearly five decades of their academic careers, emeritus professors Gerry and Liz Susman have made philanthropy to Penn State a priority, establishing student scholarships, research awards for graduate students and an award for leadership in sustainability.

Liz and Gerry Susman

Emeritus professors Gerry and Liz Susman, who recently chose to early-activate their respective professorships in the Smeal College of Business and the College of Health and Human Development.

IMAGE: Penn State

Twenty-five years ago, the couple started their philanthropic journey by pledging to create endowed professorships in their respective colleges as part of their estate plans.

Recently, Gerry and Liz decided to “early activate” the Elizabeth Fenton Susman Professorship in Biobehavioral Health in the College of Health and Human Development, and the Gerald I. Susman Professorship in Sustainability in the Smeal College of Business. Through early activation, the Susmans will provide immediate funding of $25,000 per year for the next five years for each professorship, in addition to their estate commitments, to appoint faculty members to the professorships as early as this fall.

“The idea that we could meet the holders of the professorships and see the impact of their work during our lifetimes was compelling,” said Liz, who began her career as a registered nurse working in child psychology at UCLA. It was there in 1964 that she met Gerry, an enterprising graduate student in clinical psychology. Shortly after they married in 1968, Gerry completed his doctorate in business with a specialization in the behavioral sciences.

When Gerry accepted a position as an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Penn State in 1969, the couple moved from California to central Pennsylvania. But at the time, there were no job openings for nurses. Instead, Liz embarked on an ambitious plan to retrain herself, earning a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in quick succession, all geared toward human development. She even relocated to Washington, DC, for several years, where she researched cancer immunology at the National Institutes of Health, before returning to State College to pursue her academic career. Over time, she became one of the world’s foremost experts in behavioral endocrinology and developmental psychology.

Together, Liz and Gerry found they loved Penn State so much that they spent the remainder of their careers here. Both became distinguished scholars in their chosen fields, leading their respective colleges to honor them with endowed professorships. Liz was the Jean Phillips Shibley Professor of Biobehavioral Health in the College of Health and Human Development and Gerry was the Robert and Judith Klein Professor of Management in the Smeal College of Business. They have also served as long-standing volunteer leaders of the University’s fundraising efforts, starting in the late 1990s when they co-chaired the faculty and staff committee of the “Grand Destiny” capital campaign.

The Susmans led by example with their commitments during that campaign to endow professorships like those they held themselves. In doing so, they said they discovered the deep satisfaction to be derived from philanthropy, which prompted them to make other gifts to their respective colleges in the ensuing years.

Knowing how important endowed support was for her work, Liz said she hopes the faculty member appointed to her professorship will follow her precedent of active engagement with a community of researchers. “I could have sat alone in my office and occasionally jetted off on international travel, but that wouldn’t have been much fun,” she said. She hopes the resources will be put to use by a dynamic faculty member who will support research, recruit graduate students, host high-level scientific meetings and otherwise foster an enthusiastic group of peers devoted to the pursuit of new knowledge and discovery.

“Liz’s groundbreaking research into neuroendocrine changes and their relation to antisocial behavior has had a powerful and lasting impact on her field,” said Craig J. Newschaffer, Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development. “I am grateful that she has left a legacy that will allow future scholars to press forward into new frontiers of biological science and public health.”

Gerry said he also considers himself fortunate to have held an endowed position. “Bob and Judy Klein became dear friends,” he said. “Academically, who I met and what I was able to do because of the Klein professorship was lifechanging.” He said his book, "Autonomy at Work: A Sociotechnical Analysis of Participative Analysis," was among the highlights of his career.

As the Klein Professor, Gerry hosted symposia and edited a number of books on topics such as new product development and the impact of a global economy for small- to mid-sized enterprises.

When Gerry served as Smeal’s associate dean for research in the late 2000s, he began to recognize “sustainability” as a consistent theme among his peers. To encourage research and collaborations on the topic, he helped to create the Smeal Sustainability Council and the Sustainability Advisory Board.

He also helped the college to develop its first strategic plan for sustainability, which included his vision for a research center. Nearly a decade later, the Center for the Business of Sustainability will become a reality next month. The center will advise businesses about how they can meet the growing demand for resources in a socially just and environmentally sustainable manner.

In 2017, the college created the Susman Sustainability Leadership Award in Gerry’s honor and named him as the first recipient. In appreciation, Gerry endowed the award with funds to host events to honor future recipients.

Last year, Gerry made the decision to revise his estate gift to align with his passion by supporting teaching and research in sustainability.

“Gerry took charge of Smeal’s sustainability efforts long before it was popular to do so,” said Charles H. Whiteman, dean of the Smeal College of Business. “He’s had a profound impact on our research and teaching in this area. Activating the Susman Professorship now, as his dream to see Smeal create a Center for the Business of Sustainability is about to come to fruition, will bolster our work to create a more sustainable world through sound business practices.”

Gerry hopes that, just as he once was, the individuals who hold his professorship will be catalysts for research and scholarship — individuals who stimulate dialog by gathering leaders in sustainability and bringing them together to discuss important topics. “A decade ago, Smeal was not even on the radar for sustainability. But our profile continues to grow, and I am very confident about the future,” he said.

The Susmans’ new commitment to activate their professorships early has been an occasion for reflection on their professional careers and personal history.

“When you think that we have spent more than 50 years in State College, it’s nice to have a legacy at the place we’ve devoted our entire adult lives to. We were here. We worked hard. And we made a difference,” Gerry said.

The Susmans’ gifts to activate their professorships early will advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 25, 2020