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Michael Tierney to receive Jefferson Teaching Award

  • Teacher of the year
    Teacher of the year
    His supporters say that Mike Tierney is known for his confidence in his students, the time he devotes to them and their needs and for breaking down the invisible barrier between professor and student.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Interdisciplinary advocate
    Interdisciplinary advocate
    Mike Tierney (center) shares a moment with Rob Hicks from Economics (left) and Brad Parks '03, AidData executive director
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

Michael Tierney ’87 has a little heart-to-heart chat with his students during their first week together each semester. It’s original, and it’s not. His students don’t know it, but they have just become part of Tierney’s ongoing tribute to three William & Mary professors from his past.

“I tell students that the difference between them and their professors is that their professors are older, have read a lot more, and have thought about these issues for years – but they’re probably not any smarter than you,” Tierney recalled recently. “You shouldn’t be intimidated. You shouldn’t be afraid to question the deductions of your professors.  It’s refreshing. That’s what it means to be in a university.

“I learned from other W&M faculty how to be a good teacher: set high expectations and then take their ideas as seriously as you take the ideas of your grey-haired colleagues.”

If he wore a cap, at that point Tierney would tip it in honor of Clay Clemens, Joel Schwartz and David Dessler, the latter two former Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award recipients. It is a select group that Tierney will join on Charter Day.

Dessler helped teach Tierney the power of treating students more like colleagues by suggesting they co-author a paper on how United States foreign policy makers use historical analogies to justify policy decisions. Tierney was 21 and a research assistant.

“I was thrilled, shocked, humbled, and excited” Tierney said. “But mostly I thought ‘Wow, this really smart professor is actually taking me seriously!’ That was empowering.”

Schwartz was Tierney’s academic advisor, which must have been some chore since Tierney admits he had no idea what to do with his life or the degree he was about to earn. He was contemplating buying time by joining the Marines.

Sitting inside what Tierney playfully describes as “Joel’s magnificent office in the basement of Morton Hall,” Schwartz suddenly waved his arms around the room and asked “What about this?”

Tierney didn’t understand what he meant, didn’t know that he’d have to get a Ph.D. to even become a professor. Schwartz kept at him, describing life from the other side of the desk, what it was like to work at a university…to do research…to teach. It sounded appealing; maybe the Marines could wait.

Clemens approached Tierney at the end of his junior year and asked if he would be interested in writing a senior thesis on politics within the NATO alliance. You will have to work over the summer and throughout your senior year, Clemens explained. Lots of research. Tons. Then you’ll write a 100-page paper explaining what you’ve discovered.

It sounded interesting to Tierney, and Clemens sealed the deal that summer by making himself available to meet with Tierney, who was soaking up rays at the beach.

“He didn’t have to do that,” Tierney said, “but he thought that I could do it, which was really flattering. I worked with him the whole next year, and really got interested in research.”

The three anecdotes explain the roots of Tierney’s awe-inspiring strength as a teacher.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Mike has revolutionized the way we approach teaching in the social sciences at William & Mary,” wrote Department Chair and Professor of Government John McGlennon and Sue Peterson, Wendy & Emery Reves Professor of Government and International Relations in a joint letter of recommendation. “In a department and a faculty known for strong teachers ... Mike Tierney's teaching has other dimensions which distinguish him from even our best lecturers and pedagogues.”

Tierney’s Clemens-like devotion to his students manifests itself in ways ranging from endless office hours to regular barbecues at his home.  Frequently, current or former students student live with his family while they visit on research trips or while searching for a suitable apartment in town.

"There is no professor at William & Mary who devotes more time to the mentoring and teaching of students than Professor Tierney,” wrote James Long ’03. Long is an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington.

“Mike's students recognize and appreciate this commitment,” Long continued, “frequently noting his responsiveness to their questions and concerns and his willingness to meet with them and hold extra office hours, even on weekends.”

Tierney's undying faith in his students has paid off in ways no one ever would have imagined. Take AidData, a collaborative initiative between William & Mary, Brigham Young University and Development Gateway, which has established itself as a global leader in the provision of reliable, timely and detailed information about foreign assistance projects.

In 2002, Brad Parks ’03 began working with Tierney on his honors thesis to explore the environmental impact of development assistance. Tierney served as chair and helped recruit an economist and a sociologist to serve on the committee with him. At the oral defense, as they had throughout the thesis process, the committee discussed the lack of reliable data on environmental aid in the world, and Tierney encouraged Parks to turn his thesis into a book.  The three committee members and Parks soon began a collaboration on that book, published in 2008, and building the database that has become AidData.

The project has attracted millions of dollars in grant support and generated meaningful research opportunities for hundreds of William & Mary students.

Last November in Washington, D.C., where Tierney and Parks were on hand to receive a $25 million award from USAID for the establishment and launch of the Higher Education Solutions Network, Alena Stern '12 stood before a crowd of 500 at the National Academies of Science. Stern, unflappable, wowed her audience with the story of the work being done under the leadership of Tierney and Parks (click here to see video of her address).

“I had the privilege to work with Professor Tierney for all four of my years at William & Mary as a research assistant,” Stern wrote in her letter recommending Tierney for the Jefferson Award. “I say 'work with Professor Tierney,' because Dr. Tierney not only produces ground-breaking scholarship, but truly engages his students in the process of discovery.”

Stern spent her freshman year working on Tierney's Teaching, Research, and International Politics (TRIP) Project, a biannual survey on the interrelationship between the theory and practice of international relations. One night, Tierney took his research assistants to dinner to solicit feedback on how the project could be improved.

“I was dumfounded,” Stern wrote. “Why would a professor want to ask me for my opinion on his research? I realized then that Dr. Tierney was not like many other professors . . . (he) always sees educating and inspiring students as the end goal, never missing an opportunity to empower students to believe in the power of their own ideas and find their own path of discovery.”

That's the way he was taught. That's the way he teaches. That’s why Mike Tierney is the 2013 Jefferson Teaching Award recipient.