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Leisa Meyer to receive 2016 Thomas Jefferson Award

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     Leisa Meyer was described as "an indispensable member of our (W&M) community" by a faculty member who nominated her for the Jefferson Award.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Her colleagues admire and respect her, but they admit that there isn’t time enough to contemplate all of the ways Leisa Meyer has worked for the betterment of William & Mary.

“If I listed all of Leisa's service to the College, I'd be at this all day,” Cindy Hahamovitch, chair of the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History, wrote in nominating Meyer for the 2016 Jefferson Award. Meyer will receive the award at the W&M Charter Day ceremony on Feb. 5.

The Jefferson Award is given each year to a member of the William & Mary family for significant service through his or her personal activities, influence and leadership. Meyer, professor of American studies and history, will be its 54th recipient.

“It was completely unexpected, and caught me absolutely by surprise,” Meyer said. “‘Flattered’ seems too superficial a word. I’m delighted and completely and utterly humbled by it, because it means that a lot of people respect me.”

According to Meyer’s nomination letters, it’s obvious that they do.

“She is recognized as a leader by the faculty because of her deep and abiding commitment to shared governance,” wrote Gene Tracy, chair of the physics department and director of the Center for Liberal Arts. “She has always been a forceful advocate for things she believes in, even if those opinions might be unpopular. She is fearless. I find her to be an inspiration.”

Added Arthur Knight, Boyd Associate Professor of English and American Studies: “Put succinctly: Leisa shows up. And she does the hard work. Always ... In respect to American studies, Leisa did this even before her job description formally required it. And, of course, none of our job descriptions as faculty require the level of commitment to governance and service, at every level, that Leisa has displayed and performed with distinction.”

And, finally, this came from D. Bruce Christian ’73, whose numerous gifts to the university include creating the Christian-Ewell Scholarship for study in Latin America. Christian came to know Meyer through their work together on the university’s strategic plan.

“Leisa's indefatigable nature and willingness to serve prove she is someone who appreciates William & Mary, understands William & Mary and is open to being part of the process that moves the university forward,” Christian wrote.

Everyone, it seems, has a favorite job or committee – sometimes several – to which Meyer has lent her deft touch.

Hahamovitch pointed to the “heavy lifting” Meyer performed during 5 ½ years as director of women’s studies (now gender, sexuality and women’s studies), 3 ½ years as director of graduate studies for the history department and three years as chair of the history department.

She also included Meyer’s most recent service on committees tasked with more fully integrating the non-tenure-eligible faculty into the university, crystalizing the role and position of interdisciplinary programs and her co-chairpersonship of the committee charged with developing a response from Arts & Sciences to faculty-related pieces of the William & Mary Promise, an operating model for the university adopted by the Board of Visitors in 2013.

“If that doesn't exemplify the ideals of Thomas Jefferson, I don't know what does,” Hahamovitch concluded.

“She has always been a forceful advocate for things she believes in, even if those opinions might be unpopular. She is fearless. I find her to be an inspiration.” – Gene Tracy

Tracy mentioned Meyer’s participation on search committees for a human resources director, a dean of graduate studies and research and an ombudsperson.

“Each of these jobs is time-consuming and largely thankless,” he wrote.

Associate Professor of English Jennifer Putzi, director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program, highlighted Meyer’s prominent advocacy role for members of the campus LGBTQ community.

“She is an important presence on campus for LGBTQ students and student groups,” Putzi wrote. “She is a role model for many of these students, and has fostered students’ work on their individual activist projects as well as on campus activism, such as the recent effort to establish a center for women and LBGTQ students.

“She has also worked tirelessly on issues of sexual assaults and violence against women on campus, organizing early ‘Take Back the Night’ marches, advising students personally and advocating for survivors’ rights within the administration.

“She is an indispensable member of our community.”

Hardly last on the list of Meyer’s attributes is the thing that she said “gives me energy. Teaching is the part of the job that is most important to me.”

“Whether an undergraduate or graduate student, you know you have been tested and achieved at a high level when you leave her classroom,” Christian wrote. “I hear words from some of her students such as ‘engaging,' 'amazing.' 'open,' 'knowledgeable,' 'pretty hard’ and 'the best professor I ever had.’"

Meyer digs deep when explaining the roots of her passion to juggle teaching, writing, editing, counseling, administering and advocacy.

“I was always interested in a lot of things,” she said. “I was interested in bands. I played four sports in high school. I did the trivia team. My interests were eclectic. I was a Girl Scout all through high school. I put my energy into things I was interested in but also where I thought I could possibly make a difference.”

Meyer said she’s “really proud” of the tireless, often frustrating, work she did in helping to add gender expression and identity to W&M’s 2011 non-discrimination and rights and responsibilities statements.

“That was a long, tough haul,” she said.

The inspiration to keep plugging until success was achieved came from her mother in California, Virginia.

“She actually went back to school in her 40s for her nursing degree, something she always wanted, and had a 25-year career,” Meyer said. “My mother was always the one who clarified that anything was possible, that if you wanted something you needed to step forward and make it happen. She was the person who treated people the way you’d want them to treat you. You help them when you can, and you do what you can and, if you want to see a change, you have to be willing to put time and effort into making it happen. She had strength, energy and compassion, and she never gave up.”

Meyer, a lesbian, admitted that Virginia hasn’t been “an easy state to live in,” and that she never expected to stay more than two decades.

“But William & Mary is a gem,” she said. “The history department that brought me in was – and is – incredible. As are the American Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Programs with which I have worked throughout my time here. The College of Arts & Sciences is this wonderful, vibrant, energetic space that is completely committed to teaching, undergraduate and graduate.

“I always thought I’d go back to California or the West Coast or the North or the Midwest. William & Mary is what’s kept me here."