Christopher Tounsel named inaugural Rein Early Career Professor

Susan Burlingame
February 04, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Christopher Tounsel, assistant professor of history and African studies, has been named the inaugural Catherine Shultz Rein Early Career Professor in the College of the Liberal Arts.

Christopher Tounsel

Christopher Tounsel, the inaugural Catherine Shultz Rein Early Career Professor in the College of the Liberal Arts, will use the opportunity to work on a third book and to inspire students.

IMAGE: Michael T. Davis Photography

His appointment is possible due to the generosity of longtime Penn State philanthropist Catherine Rein, a 1964 alumna of the College of the Liberal Arts. Rein is a former member of the Penn State Alumni Association Council and current member of the Liberal Arts Development Council. She has received both the Penn State Distinguished Alumni and Penn State Alumni Fellow awards. The endowment was established last fall with a $400,000 gift from Rein and a $100,000 match from the University’s Faculty Endowment Challenge.

Rein, who has made significant philanthropic contributions to Penn State for many years — most of which have been undergraduate scholarships — said this endowment is different from the others in that it focuses on the people who will teach undergraduate students.

“It has always been important to me to support students, because when I came to Penn State, it wasn’t easy for me. There were times when I wasn’t sure I was going to have enough money to finish,” she said. “With this gift, it struck me that it is also important to encourage talented professors early in their career not just to focus on their research and publishing their results but also to excel in their teaching responsibilities.

“The professorship gives recognition for the value of Professor Tounsel’s work,” Rein added. “I hope it allows him to have less worry about funding as he continues with his important academic endeavors.”

A historian of modern Sudan, with a special focus on race and religion as political technologies, Tounsel said his interest in history goes back to third grade.

“Like most school-aged children, I was a Scholastic Book Club subscriber. I ordered a book called the ‘Encyclopedia of the Presidents and their Times,’ which really launched my passion for history as a broader subject.”

That book, he said, sits on his shelf to this day.

As his interest expanded, Tounsel said the events of Sept. 11, 2001, influenced his future research.

“I remember being fascinated by the way that terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ became part of political discourse. They were spiritual terms in a political context,” he said. “I became interested in how Christians across time and space had used the Bible or their faith to justify violent action, and it was in that kind of broader context that I landed on Sudan, where there is a melting pot of racial, religious and political identities. As a person of faith, I am really interested in ways people have used their faith to inform their public lives and their political action.”

Tounsel’s scholarship has appeared in numerous journals, including the Journal of African American History, the Journal of Religious History, and the Journal of Eastern African Studies. His first book, “Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan,” will be published this year by Duke University Press. The first draft of his second monograph, “Bounds of Blackness: African Americans, Sudan, and the Politics of Solidarity,” is nearly complete, and he hopes the resources from the Rein Early Career Professorship will help him complete a third book.

Tounsel earned his bachelor’s degree at Duke University and his master’s and doctoral degrees, both in history, at the University of Michigan. He joined the Penn State faculty in 2016. When asked how he responded to hearing that he had been named the inaugural Rein Early Career Professor, Tounsel said he was both shocked and humbled. He said he feels a profound responsibility to honor the new “name” he now carries.

“The book of Proverbs says that a good name is to be chosen over great riches,” he said. “I will now be carrying Catherine Rein’s name as part of my professional profile. As a husband and a father, every time I leave the house, I am not just representing myself but also my household. And now, I have another name to represent. The early career professorship forces me to look outside of myself and to think about what kind of public value my work will have.”

“Dr. Tounsel is clearly a rising scholar in history and African studies,” said Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. “Through his research expertise and teaching, he has demonstrated a passion for the important role the past plays in helping us to understand the present — and shape the future. I'm also grateful for his spirit of service to the college and the University​. The Rein Early Career Professorship recognizes Dr. Tounsel for his fine work to date as well as his potential for making an impact on students’ lives and on the academy.”

The Power of the Liberal Arts

Catherine Rein’s Penn State undergraduate degree was followed by a law degree from New York University. She began her career in law and finished as senior executive vice president for MetLife. She said the opportunity to endow the early career professorship allows her to promote the value of the liberal arts.

“With my liberal arts education, I wasn’t only able to have a fulfilling and financially successful career,” she said. “I also had an education that opened my mind to a lot of things that brought fulfillment and enjoyment in the rest of my life. The right teachers — like Dr. Tounsel — can give the students who have come after me the same kinds of opportunities.

“I am known to often remind my colleagues at Penn State that the University’s first job is to teach undergraduate students,” Rein continued. “I want other donors to see that there are many ways, in addition to scholarships, to support the students. I hope to encourage others to recognize that providing high quality undergraduate education is as much a source of Penn State Pride as its outstanding research and other academic and outreach efforts are.”

“As professors, we have a responsibility to engage, inform, educate, and enlighten,” concluded Tounsel. “I see the early career professorship as an extra calling, an encouragement to do that kind of work. I think that history should be used. Not just looked at but used. We, as citizens, not just of this country but of the world, are better citizens when we are better informed. My hope is that my African history classes are part of that larger project of liberal arts education, and the Rein Early Career Professorship will help me do that. I am deeply grateful to Catherine Rein for providing me with this opportunity.”

The Catherine Shultz Rein Early Career Professorship helps to 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 support from devoted benefactors who believe in Penn State and its mission, “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 serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

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Last Updated February 05, 2021