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Sarah Irvine Belson Wins Betty T. Bennett Award

SETH dean lauded as exemplary scholar and administrative leader

By Helen Dodson

Betty T. Bennett

SETH Dean Sarah Irvine Belson

Sarah Irvine Belson, dean of AU’s School of Education, Teaching and Health (SETH), is the fourth recipient of the prestigious Betty T. Bennett Faculty Scholar-Administrator Award from the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS).

The Betty T. Bennett Award

Betty Bennett, a professor of literature and renowned authority on the work of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley, was dean of the College from 1985 until 1997. She died of lung cancer in 2006.

Her family established the award to recognize a member of the AU College faculty who is an exemplary scholar and administrative leader. “Betty Bennett personified this ideal, as does Sarah Irvine Belson,” says Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Betty was an educator of the highest order, and each winner of the award given in Betty’s memory has been an outstanding example of the qualities Betty demonstrated throughout her career.”

Prior recipients of the Bennett award have been Naomi Baron, executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning; William Leap, professor and former chair of anthropology; and Anthony Riley, professor and former chair of psychology.

Academic Lives
After earning her PhD from Arizona State University, Irvine Belson came to American University 20 years ago as an assistant professor of special education. Bennett was dean of CAS at that time. Irvine Belson remembers how, as a young professor, she sought Bennett’s advice on life as an academic.

“She was clear with me that it’s not always easy to manage the demands of teaching, scholarship, and service,” Irvine Belson recalls. “She made sure I understood that I would have competing demands, and life would be a balancing act. I liked that she was straightforward with me.”

Bennett’s expertise in the work of author Mary Shelley was her signature contribution, Irvine Belson says, calling Bennett a “rock star scholar” who brought great recognition to AU. More than that, she adds, Bennett was a leader who helped shape the AU learning environment we know today. “The university’s strategic plan talks about the teacher-scholar ideal. Betty embodied this ideal by encouraging faculty to expertly present research and knowledge construction, not only to our fellow academics, but also in an accessible way to the students in our care.”

A Living Legacy

Irvine Belson says she is grateful for the Bennett award for herself as well as for her colleagues in SETH. “We have great faculty in education and health; exciting research underway; young scholars who are doing work in neuroscience, learning disabilities, policy, and international education,” Irvine Belson says. “Those scholars, with the support of dedicated staff, are designing exciting projects that translate their research into practice in the DC community.”

Former Dean Betty Bennett
dean bennett

“I was in the right place at the right time, so lucky to be able to serve under Bennett,” says Irvine Belson, who will be stepping down as dean as SETH splits next year into the School of Education and the Department of Health Studies. “It feels good to have built something up that is strong and has two legs on which to stand.”

Irvine Belson is also grateful to Bennett on a personal level for believing in her. “She said to me, ‘Sarah, you have the potential to be an administrator,’ hinting that I could be a dean. It astonished me that this woman I admired said I had potential. I thought at the time, really? Me? I can’t even figure out how to prioritize!” Irvine Belson said she still carries Bennett’s vote of confidence with her.

Irvine Belson says, “We will always have a hard time measuring up to Betty’s standards. Her legacy of holding very high standards for every aspect of our work continues — in taking good care of our students, our community, and each other.”