Jim Hopkins, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor in the History Department of Dedman College, is an example of SMU’s exemplary dedication of faculty to undergraduate education–one of the many things that attracted both of us to SMU. Compared to friends and colleagues we’ve met in the subsequent 15 years—many of whom attended top tier universities but spent as much time with teaching assistants as with celebrated faculty—we feel extremely fortunate to have benefited from first rate teaching and rich relationships with SMU’s faculty.
As a history major, one of us (Read) still recalls fondly the atmosphere of intellectual engagement and curiosity that Jim fosters in every classroom discussion he leads. But our warmest memories of Jim and his wife, Patti LaSalle, SMU’s Associate Vice President and Executive Director of Public Affairs, are from Alternative Spring Break. In March 1999, rather than take a week off from teaching and campus leadership, Jim and Patti joined our group of SMU students on a spring break service trip to San Francisco, CA, where we worked with Glide Memorial United Methodist Church to serve the city’s homeless.
Under most circumstances, our group of students—eager to make a difference but accustomed to rolling out of bed at 9:47 am to make 10 o’clock classes in Dallas Hall—would have done well simply to show up on time and support Glide’s programs without causing too much disruption in day-to-day operations. Jim and Patti made sure the experience was about more than volunteering our time, exploring a new city, and forging closer bonds with other students as we worked at Glide, slept on the floor, and navigated public transportation.
Over meals, Jim regularly led riveting discussion about the complex interplay of urban poverty, public policy, modern economics, cycles of dependency and empowerment, and the history of embedding safety net services in religious organizations across the country. In essence, Alternative Spring Break became not an escape from the classroom or an immersion in the “real world,” but rather an extension of the applied learning laboratory that Jim and others create everyday on the SMU campus.
Research, grants, and innovative academic programs are important foundational elements for any university seeking to make a visible difference in society. However, the true catalyst for impact is engaged faculty, who not only teach but also mentor; who not only push forward the boundaries of human knowledge, but also make sense of the changing world for students; who not only shape lives on campus, but also set an example outside the ivory tower. Jim Hopkins, like many of SMU’s best faculty, embodies all of these principles. He is one of the university’s finest people, and represents the very best of SMU’s history and aspirations for the future.