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Dr. Roger Whitcomb

Professor Emeritus of Political Science Difference Maker

Nominator: David W. Jones '89

David's Memories: I walked into Dr. Roger Whitcomb's International Relations class with little interest in politics, and no idea what I wanted to major in. When I walked out at the end of that semester, not only had I decided on my major, but the direction of my career had been set.

It's been more than 25 years since graduation, and I have been working in politics and policy ever since. I owe that to Dr. Whitcomb and Kutztown University.  Many professors challenge their students, and Dr. Whitcomb certainly challenged us. He had a clear command of his subject matter. But his style was different and, more effective for me, he almost seemed to "confront" his students intellectually.

Dr. Whitcomb relished academic debate. In fact, he provoked it. In class, he punctuated his memorable orations with direct questions to his students, collectively and individually. Those questions were sometimes real, and sometimes rhetorical, but he wanted answers either way. He wanted us to challenge him with our responses. If a student could back up their own argument with reason and facts, they earned his immediate respect. If they were just spouting some nostrum they heard from their parents or in the latest Rambo movie...God help them.

Professor Whitcomb seemed fine with some students not liking his style, or his views on the issues, as long as it led to them asking tough questions about how they viewed the world.

Only later did I realize that he was using this style to rouse students from the slumber of the confines of their daily lives to thinking about the many important issues facing the United States in the 1980s. He believed that a key to learning was questioning your assumptions about yourself, your country and the world.

His sometimes feigned antagonism extended even to me, an obvious supporter of the "old man," as he called himself. A few years after that first class, I challenged him fiercely on what I considered an unfair grade, and we both refused to back down. I repeated the class, which I had never done, and increased my grade substantially. Although he never said it, I now think that the improvement in my grade was due to his admiration of a student who took him on in the Whitcomb style, forcefully, but with reason and facts to back me up.

Another key to Whitcomb's success: he could make it fun. His deep understanding of his subject matter was injected with humor and self-deprecation.  That combination couldn't help but engage and entertain even the most uninterested student.  My classmates and I frequently found ourselves outside of class talking, and sometimes laughing, about the latest Whitcomb-ism of the week. To this day, when I talk to my former classmates, Dr. Whitcomb will come up.

Outside the classroom, he seemed to be an academic force of nature. My interest in politics was cemented when I attended a debate organized and moderated by Professor Whitcomb between Dr. Richard Pipes, the Director of Harvard's Russian Research Center, and Dr. Stephen Cohen, the Princeton professor of Russian studies. They were two of the most respected Sovietologists of that exciting decade. The Cold War was still raging, and Pipes had served on President Reagan's National Security Council. Cohen was a strong critic of Reagan's policies. Whitcomb was in his glory.

In 1971, he founded the Kutztown University Model U.N. Club, which won multiple national awards at the National Model United Nations competition during his 17-year tenure. This was not a club for the faint of heart or for those who wanted to get down to Shorty's or Basin Street early. Our weekly evening prep sessions were intense and would run until after 10 p.m. Pity the student who came unprepared and was quizzed by Professor Whitcomb.

The year I was in the club, Dr. Whitcomb secured the Kutztown University delegation the much sought-after role of representing Nicaragua. In the 1980s, just to be named the school representing Nicaragua at a National Model UN Competition was basically an award because Nicaragua was at the center of American foreign policy at the time. Dozens of universities wanted to play the part of Nicaragua, but Kutztown got it...and it wasn't by luck of the draw. At one point, I remember our entire delegation storming out of the Model U.N. "General Assembly" which was held in the ballroom of the New York Grand Hyatt Hotel!  Advisors couldn't be in the room, and students made decisions on their own, but under Whitcomb's tutelage we studied, debated and acted our way to a high placement. Indeed, during his 17 years as Model U.N. Advisor, K.U. students won 11 top delegation awards.

On October 15, 1986, hundreds of activists from the Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament converged on Kutztown during their seven month walk for peace across the country. Professor Whitcomb was among those in the KU faculty who persuaded university president Dr. Lawrence Stratton to open up university facilities to the marchers, and allow them a venue to discuss the issue of nuclear proliferation. This was not universally embraced by everyone in the Kutztown University community, some of whom considered the marchers "radicals." Nevertheless, the university's openness to the march received widespread publicity in the news media.

In 1989, in my last semester at Kutztown, a classmate and I organized a debate between Professor Whitcomb and Dr. Mohammand Mehdi, a prominent national leader in the Arab-American community, about the controversial book by Salman Rushdie, "The Satanic Verses." The book resulted in a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, calling for Rushdie's death.  Dr. Whitcomb happily accepted my request to participate and was publically supportive of my efforts, an important boost for a young person.

He served in many other capacities in which I was not involved, most notably for 11 years as director of International Studies, during which, he helped set up some 10 programs in six countries involving both student and faculty exchanges and courses of study. He was also deeply committed to the faculty union, serving as president of Kutztown's faculty association (APSCUF) on three different occasions; as a member of three state APSCUF collective bargaining negotiations teams; and as president of the Faculty Senate and a number of university committees, where I am sure that he provided energetic and visionary leadership as well as being the occasional "thorn-in-the-side" of university leadership. Throughout it all, one could not help but admire his inspired engagement in the academic, social and community life of the university.

It is with all of this in mind that I proudly nominate Dr. Roger Whitcomb, retired (2002) professor of political science at Kutztown University, as a faculty member who "made a difference."