The Shoulders of Giants

Endowed faculty positions are as much tools for retention as they are for recruiting—rewarding the work that MSU’s reputation is built upon: the work of those who are already here, and the inspiration they’ve drawn from.

John Jiang, Karen Perry, and Rafael Auras, pose on the sidewalk, with Beaumont Tower in the background.

The Shoulders of Giants

Endowed faculty positions are as much tools for retention as they are for recruiting—rewarding the work that MSU’s reputation is built upon: the work of those who are already here, and the inspiration they’ve drawn from.

So much has been said about endowed faculty positions as recruiting tools—leverage for universities to hire the best and brightest researchers from other institutions to continue their groundbreaking, discipline-crossing, mind-opening work here at Michigan State.

But aside from the promise of private funding to make their very best work even better, a big part of what brings new leaders to MSU is the reputation our university already has as a thriving environment for big ideas and collegial collaboration.

It is a reputation built on the shoulders of the incredible teachers and researchers that are already here:

Like the cat specialist in the College of Veterinary Medicine, who is a teacher, a researcher, and a practitioner, paving the way for advancements in feline orthopedic surgery and beyond, and helping students, patients, and colleagues, on an international scale, to better understand our furry friends.

Or the sustainable packaging expert in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ School of Packaging, whose insights into biodegradable and compostable packaging are more important than ever as humans attempt to reduce our impact on  the environment.

And the accounting professor in the Eli Broad College of Business, whose expertise in his field is matched in equal measure with his expertise as a teacher, his ability to present complex information in an exciting, accessible way, and the connections he builds with students to help set them up for success.

These faculty members, who have a collective half-century of experience right here at MSU, earned endowed positions last year in honor of their accomplishments and their contributions to their fields, and also for their inherent potential—and desire—to do more, go bigger, or build something completely new.

Karen Perry: Fixer of feline femurs and other furry foibles

Pat Carrigan Endowed Chair in Feline Health

Years at MSU: almost 10

“MSU has an incredible orthopedic heritage, with names like Dr. Wade Brinker, Dr. Terry Braden, Dr. Charles DeCamp, Dr. Gretchen Flo, and Dr. Loic Dejardin, to name just a few. It is amazing to look at the current “who’s who” of veterinary orthopedics and see that the vast majority of them have some link to MSU. It is an incredible honor to be a part of that heritage and to have the privileged responsibility of sustaining and contributing to that reputation.”

When you ask Dr. Karen Perry what initially motivated her to specialize in cats, she answers in the way anybody who has ever owned a cat would expect: she grew up with cats. She has always had cats. They have always been treasured family members and providers of emotional support. They deserve the best treatment so they can live their best lives.

The part about giving cats “the best treatment” is what really gets to the heart of her motivation.

“Cats were treated like small dogs for an incredibly long time,” she says.

Cats are not dogs, and treating them as such doesn’t always produce the best outcome.

It is this way of thinking that has shaped the last decade of steadfast work that Perry has done at MSU, as a practicing veterinarian with a significant clinical presence; an active researcher; and a teacher committed to inspiring the next generation of feline-leaning veterinary professionals.

It also earned her the title of Pat Carrigan Endowed Chair in Feline Health.

The position was created through an estate gift from the late former MSU Trustee Patricia Carrigan, a lifelong cat aficionado who understood—like Perry understands—how necessary it was that funding be devoted specifically to research that betters the life of cats.

“It is absolutely a key aim of mine and a priority for my career to inspire the next generation of feline enthusiasts and orthopedic surgeons,” Perry says. “Promoting equal access to veterinary services for cats and the development of both surgical and non-surgical treatments that are tailored to their unique requirements.”

But there is a translational aspect to feline research, too. Certain diseases prevalent in cats—osteoarthritis, for one—are also prevalent in humans, and research into treating one could inform strategies for treating the other. And, of course, procedures and therapeutics that work exceptionally well on cats, who obviously have smaller bones and bodies than, say, the average dog, can also work on other cat-sized creatures.

(Perry does treat dogs, though. An avid user of social media as a tool for sharing her work and her patients’ success stories, Perry once used her platform to express delight over the opportunity to collaborate with vets from Tufts University on a procedure to surgically stabilize a femoral fracture in a teeny tiny fennec fox!)

With funding from the Carrigan Chair, Perry can expand her work in all of these areas, purchase and train her research partners in the use of new, leading-edge equipment, and, in the process, provide better treatment for her patients, better learning opportunities for her students, and better lives for cats and the humans who love them.

“It is an immense honor to become the Pat Carrigan Chair, in addition to being a responsibility I take very seriously,” Perry says. “Patricia Carrigan was a woman who pushed boundaries and who has a number of ‘firsts’ ascribed to her name. In her honor, I hope we will go on to achieve many more ‘firsts.’”

Rafael Auras: Pollution problem-solver

Amcor Endowed Chair in Packaging Sustainability

Years at MSU: 20

“The School of Packaging stands out as a beacon of excellence in packaging research, education, and outreach—truly a global leader in its field. Here, collaboration across different disciplinesis not just encouraged, but celebrated. Perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of my time has been the opportunity to mentor students—and seeing them graduate and go on to affect positive change reaffirms my belief in the transformative power of education and research.”

The MSU School of Packaging is THE packaging school. The first of its kind in the nation, the only program that offers a Ph.D. in the field, and the alma mater of more than 40% of packaging professionals working worldwide.

That’s a big part of what brought Rafael Auras to Michigan State as a graduate student in 2000, and it is definitely part of why he never left. He joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 2004, and has grown his career and his reputation as a leading expert in the area of sustainable packaging over two decades.

The School of Packaging has grown, too, thanks in part to investments from its loyal community of alums, donors, and corporate partners.

One of those partners—Amcor, a global leader in producing responsible packaging—made a big splash in 2021, with a $10 million gift to support a renovation project at the packaging building, and create the School of Packaging’s very first endowed position: the Amcor Endowed Chair in Packaging Sustainability.

And who better to hold that position than Rafael Auras?

In the year since being named to the position, the reach and impact of Auras’ work has increased substantially, in his capacity as both a teacher and a researcher.

From an instructional standpoint, elevating the importance of sustainability in packaging has a ripple effect. Graduates from the School of Packaging head out into the world with sustainability baked into their skillsets and at the top of their minds.

And watching packaging graduates make their own impact on the field is another thing that continues to inspire and fuel Auras. His lab employed eight students from undergraduate level all the way up to a post-doctoral fellow this year, and boasts a roster of more than 50 alumni and 30 visiting scholars since 2005!

One area Auras and his team of students and collaborators are currently prioritizing thanks to the Amcor endowment is life-cycle assessments: looking at the environmental footprint of the entire process of packaging—from what it’s made of, to how it’s manufactured, to how it’s transported, and, eventually, to how it is disposed of, with the goal of implementing more sustainable practices and materials across the board.

“Being named the Amcor Endowed Chair in Packaging Sustainability marks a significant milestone in my career,” Auras says. “It’s truly an honor to hold the first endowed position in the School of Packaging, and this recognition provides a remarkable platform for envisioning my research trajectory over the next decade. It has enabled me to explore ambitious ‘moonshot’ projects that were previously out of reach.”

John Jiang: Accounting academician with an aptitude for accessibility

Eli Broad Endowed Professor

Years at MSU: 19

“I love the sense of community and the shared commitment to excellence in the Broad College of Business. I was fortunate to be mentored by remarkable educators like Kathy Petroni and the late Ed Outslay, who were renowned for their dedication to pedagogical excellence and student engagement. This supportive and vibrant community encourages intellectual growth and innovation, and the chance to work with talented people and make a difference in the world is what keeps me here. I am proud to be a Spartan, and it’s always a thrill to hear a ‘Go Green!’ from fellow Spartans, whether I’m on campus or halfway around the world.”

We’ve all encountered, at some point in our lives, a person so engaging and ebullient and warm that, when we describe the person to others, we say, “I love so-and-so’s energy so much—they could read the phone book and I’d think it was interesting!”

In the Eli Broad College of Business, John Jiang is that person, and the thing he’s delivering isn’t a read-through of the phone book. It’s accounting classes, and it’s a huge part of what earned him the honor of being named an Eli Broad Endowed Professor.

There are the pages and pages of sincere, positive reviews from former students, who emerged on the other side of Jiang’s accounting classes with a deep understanding of the subject—and a bit of a soft spot for it, too. To summarize a few:

“[Professor Jiang] was a great professor and will be one of my longtime faculty connections at MSU…”

“I enjoyed his enthusiasm for a topic typically considered dry…”

“He expressed care and commitment to making sure his class learned the material…”

“He has inspired me to dive deeper into my understanding  of accounting…”

And if the reviews aren’t enough, Jiang’s approach to teaching accounting has earned him a stack of awards, too, including Outstanding Teacher of the Year in the Broad College, a Withrow Endowed Emerging Scholar award, and MSU’s Spirit of Ability award, a huge honor that is bestowed to faculty members to “create vibrant environments that welcome, fortify and compassionately challenge students with disabilities to reach their fullest ability.”

In short, he wants all of his students to leave his courses with practical skills—how to actually do accounting—but also the more cerebral skill of being able to think about accounting, and use it to better understand current events in the business world that affect us all.

“Teaching accounting is like imparting a universal language,” Jiang says. “It’s applicable everywhere in our lives, and while we increasingly rely on software tools for tasks like balancing checkbooks and filing tax returns, it’s crucial to grasp the underlying logic and concepts of these tools to avoid becoming dependent on them.

“The Broad college places a lot of emphasis on both research and student engagement, and that inspires me to make accounting accessible and engaging, helping students understand its critical role in business decision-making.”

When he’s not in the classroom, Jiang has his own body of research to focus on, too. Funding from the endowed professorship has already helped him advance a big project: a study of healthcare cost disparities that could eventually help inform policy around public health data reporting. In true “funding begets funding” fashion, he was able to secure a grant from the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation to expand this work even further.

“Being named an Eli Broad Endowed Professor is a huge honor. It’s not just a nod to my past work, but also a vote of confidence in my future projects.”

Bringing it all together

When it comes to endowed positions—regardless of whether they’re being used as tools to recruit, or to retain—everybody comes out on top.

Because in the same way Perry, Auras and Jiang draw inspiration from the faculty members who came before them—who imbued them with the desire to collaborate and become dynamic building blocks in the stellar reputation MSU has in each of their fields—faculty members of the future can look to them as proof that MSU is, and always was, a place where it’s impossible to not go big, do more, and build something entirely new. Because the foundation to support it is already here because of the generosity of Spartans and friends like Eli Broad and like you.

LEARN MORE about support for endowed faculty positions by contacting the development officer in your college or unit or by calling (517) 884-1000.

VISIT MSU’s official Honored Faculty website, where you can search and sort by name, college or position to learn more about some of MSU’s best and brightest faculty members.

Author: Devon Barrett, '11