Emeritus Prof. James Crowfoot went to Rendezvous Cafe yesterday morning planning to catch up with an old colleague. It became clear that the meeting was much more than a cup of coffee when a group of students and a cameraman eagerly approached his table.
“Excuse me, are you Professor Crowfoot?” asked LSA senior Andrew Bronstein, co-chair of Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching. The School of Natural Resources Prof. said he was.
Crowfoot sat in his chair in disbelief as Bronstein explained to him that he was the winner of this year’s Golden Apple Award, the 18-year-old honor given to one University professor each year for excellence in teaching.
Crowfoot, speechless at times, replied by saying, “What an incredible surprise!”
He apologized for his inability to provide a response to the award.
“Shocked, surprised – I’m totally caught off guard,” he said.
The award is usually presented to the recipient during one of his or her lectures, but because Crowfoot isn’t teaching his class – a first-year seminar called “Environment, Sustainability and Social Change” – in the winter semester, SHOUT members had to improvise. They lured Crowfoot to the cafe by asking one of his old friends to set up a rendezvous at Rendezvous.
LSA freshman Greg Caplan, who took one of Crowfoot’s classes last semester, said the professor’s humility is just reason his students admire him. Caplan said Crowfoot’s students often become environmental activists after taking his course.
“He doesn’t really encourage you to do it, he just sort of leads by example,” Caplan said. “He’s really inspiring.”
Chris Detjen, a former student of Crowfoot’s and president of the Michigan Student Assembly’s environmental issues commission, said Crowfoot’s enthusiasm motivated several students to join the commission.
“He’s good with connecting students with other people on campus that are doing interesting things in terms of environmental organizing,” he said.
The winners of the Golden Apple Award are asked to present what’s called an “ideal last lecture,” which is open to the public. Crowfoot’s will be held March 11 at 7:30 p.m. in Rackham Auditorium.
Bronstein said Golden Apple Award winners are determined by how many nominations they receive from their students, and how glowing those endorsements are. He declined to reveal how many votes Crowfoot received, saying it was against SHOUT’s policy to do so.
Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said in an e-mail interview that Crowfoot was a model professor at the University.
“I cannot think of anyone more deserving of the students’ highest teaching honor,” she said. “He is a very precious resource and a great force in the effort to create a sustainable planet for the current students to inherit. I know they will, in turn, work to preserve it for future generations as Dr. Crowfoot has taught them.”
Crowfoot’s approach to teaching was described by students as unorthodox and inspirational.
Caplan said he remembers the first time Crowfoot took his students for a “nature walk” outdoors in the Arboretum.
“Before the first walk he made the disclaimer, ‘Don’t worry if I just leave the trail for a minute during the walk because sometimes I like to hug trees,’ ” Caplan said.
Crowfoot began his career at the University as a Rackham student studying sociology during the politically charged era of the Nixon administration.
At the time, he was working to restructure a racially segregated high school system, he said.
He switched to the growing field of environmentalism after receiving his doctorate, and became a professor shortly after.
He resigned from his teaching post at the University in 1994 to become the president of Antioch University in Ohio, but returned a year later.
Crowfoot said he loves the University community, but that he thinks it could do more to address environmental issues.
“We have not stepped up to our responsibility as an academic institution,” Crowfoot said.