Candis Watts Smith named Brown-McCourtney Early Career Professor in Liberal Arts

Susan Burlingame
June 30, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Candis Watts Smith, associate professor of political science and African American studies, has been named the Brown-McCourtney Early Career Professor in the College of the Liberal Arts.

Smith joined the Penn State faculty in July 2019 as part of the college’s African American and African Diaspora Life and Culture hiring effort, which resulted in 11 new faculty members in the college. She holds master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Duke University and is the author of three books and dozens of journal articles, book chapters and conference presentations. Her research focuses on illuminating how race and ethnicity shape the American political landscape and the ways in which demographic dynamics influence U.S. citizens' and denizens' understanding of their own identity, political attitudes and policy preferences.

Smith said she is thrilled to be named the Brown-McCourtney professor, noting that she has been warmly welcomed by faculty and staff in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy since arriving at Penn State. In fact, she was a recent guest on the McCourtney Institute’s award-winning “Democracy Works” podcast, where she discussed her book, “Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter,” co-authored with Tehama Lopez Bunyasi, assistant professor of conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University.

“The McCourtney is doing amazing work in all kinds of directions, and it’s an honor to be associated with them,” she said. “To get the professorship makes me feel even more a part of the family.”

The Brown-McCourtney professorship was established to enrich the scholarly activity of a faculty member affiliated with the McCourtney Institute in the initial years of the faculty member’s career. It was created through an estate commitment made by longtime benefactors and Penn State alumni Lynne and Laurence Brown. The Browns took advantage of the college’s Tracy and Ted McCourtney Endowed Professorship Matching Gift Program, which doubled the size of their commitment and made possible the immediate activation of their endowment.

Smith is the second faculty member to hold the professorship; the inaugural position was held by Abraham Kahn, assistant professor of African American studies and communication sciences and disorders.

“Professor Smith has made quite a mark on her students and on her discipline since joining our faculty last year,” said Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. “The Brown-McCourtney Early Career Professorship will help fuel her work, which is particularly relevant as our nation experiences ​not only unrest and uncertainty​, but also enormous possibilities for progressive change and reform. She is very deserving of the honor, and I look forward to what she will accomplish in the future.”

In addition to praising her McCourtney Institute colleagues, Smith said she is extremely fond of her students, and she has been inspired and impressed by fellow faculty members and departmental leaders.

“Marie Hojnacki (acting head of political science and associate professor of political science) has been a phenomenal leader to watch. To see her model leadership has been really helpful to me,” said Smith. “And Cynthia Young (head of African American studies and associate professor of African American studies and English) has been amazing. She has not only led the department, she also has been integral in creating community among the new scholars in African American studies.”

With the funding from her new professorship, Smith hopes to concentrate on current projects as well as her “dream” research project. The first is a study of the politicization of access to contraception and overall reproductive health care. The second is an in-depth investigation into diversity training.

“I am really interested to know what diversity training companies are selling and what people who hire diversity outfits think they are buying, who keeps these entities accountable, and whether or not they are effective,” explained Smith. “Particularly with regard to police and teachers, who are the face of our government and who interact with the most vulnerable people in society, I want to find out and measure whether or not diversity training makes them do their work any differently.”

“Holding the Brown-McCourtney Professorship means I will have more freedom and flexibility to pursue my research interests,” she concluded. “I am so grateful to the McCourtneys and to Larry and Lynne Brown for their generosity in creating this position and for their longtime support of the McCourtney Institute and the college.”

In addition to creating the Brown-McCourtney Early Career Professorship, the Browns established The Laurence and Lynne Brown Democracy Medal in the McCourtney Institute in 2014 and have made generous contributions supporting the Richards Civil War Era Center, outstanding graduate students and their dissertation research, and internships at national parks for undergraduate students.

“Lynne and I are very excited to learn that Candis Watts Smith has been named the newest Brown-McCourtney Early Career Professor. We have followed her career since she was part of the college’s landmark cluster hire in African American life and culture,” commented Larry Brown. “We look forward to meeting with her and hope that the professorship assists and supports her research and study as she explores the political and policy ramifications of shifting demographics in the United States. We truly enjoyed our interaction with Abe Kahn during his 18-month appointment and look forward to the same kind of involvement with Professor Smith.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021