Sweet Briar professor of mathematical sciences Jim Kirkwood is one of 13 recipients of a 2016 Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. An OFA is the commonwealth’s highest honor given to faculty at its private and public universities and colleges.
The awards, which were announced Wednesday, are given for superior accomplishments in teaching, research and public service. Kirkwood is the second Sweet Briar mathematics professor to receive an OFA; Raina Robeva was selected in 2014 — and that means as much to Kirkwood as anything.
“It’s just a tremendous honor,” he said. “It was a shock and extremely flattering but almost more important to me is the recognition for the College that we deserve.
“Faculty in the math department have won it twice in the last three years and that’s unbelievable for a place this size.”
Kirkwood has taught at Sweet Briar for more than 30 years. During that time, his prolificacy as an author of math textbooks became legendary and he built a reputation as a quiet leader, both of his department and the College as a whole, says his longtime colleague Pam DeWeese, a professor of Spanish now serving as interim dean and vice president for academic affairs.
But in no arena is he thought of more highly than as a teacher.
“His patience and quiet sense of humor have won over generations of Sweet Briar students who entered believing that they were not ‘math people,’ but who graduated with majors or minors in mathematics,” DeWeese wrote in support of his nomination.
Leah Busque ’01, a math and computer science major, wrote that he took the fear of “an incredibly challenging and intimidating subject” out of the classroom.
“Dr. Kirkwood never left a student behind in class and was still able to challenge the most enthusiastic of us,” said Busque, the founder and CEO of TaskRabbit Inc.
Kirkwood’s students often mention his ability to read their level of comprehension, then break down or recast an explanation to make it more understandable. It may be a gift, but it’s one he cultivated.
In a recent profile, Kirkwood said he learned to play the violin because he “wanted to learn what it felt like to be really lost, to get an appreciation for students who feel scared about math.”
Beyond Sweet Briar, Kirkwood has long been involved in continuing education for area math teachers. For 26 years, he also taught summer courses for entering graduate students at the University of Virginia, where he received his Ph.D. He collaborated during that time with his former professor, Lawrence E. Thomas. Thomas, now professor emeritus, admired the agility and thoughtful design of Kirkwood’s courses, which were meant to prepare students from disparate backgrounds for the difficult program.
Thomas also wrote that he couldn’t help noting his former student’s teaching and administrative contributions to Sweet Briar’s math department. Kirkwood was part of a multidisciplinary team that developed the College’s biomathematics major.
“He has been instrumental in assembling a department that is truly excellent and interesting in its choices of emphasis, one of the very best college departments in the state,” Thomas said.
Sweet Briar’s president Phil Stone came to know Kirkwood as one of the first community members to step forward to make sure the College would operate normally this fall following the June settlement to keep it open. He said one question he heard repeatedly from students debating their return was whether Kirkwood would be teaching.
“On campus, Dr. Kirkwood has long been recognized as an outstanding teacher, scholar and colleague,” Stone said. “It gives all of us enormous pleasure to see the broader community recognize his outstanding credentials and accomplishments. By earning this significant honor, he has brought added luster to Sweet Briar. Jim would be the first to say that he represents an exceptional faculty at the College. We are very proud of him.”
The Outstanding Faculty Award recipients will be honored at a luncheon at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond on Feb. 16, after an introduction on the floor of the General Assembly.
For more about the OFA awards, visit the SCHEV website.