Arts & Sciences at WUSTL recognizes five distinguished alumni, graduate school dean

Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis recognized the achievements of five alumni and a graduate school dean on May 16 at an awards ceremony following the university’s 147th commencement.

Edward S. Macias, Ph.D., executive vice chancellor, dean of Arts & Sciences and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, presented Distinguished Alumni Awards to five individuals who have attained distinction in their academic or professional careers and have demonstrated service to their communities and to the university.

Macias also presented the Dean’s Medal to Robert E. Thach, Ph.D., who is stepping down June 30 after 15 years as dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

The five who received the Distinguished Alumni Award are Andrew M. Bursky (A.B. ’78, B.S. ’78, M.S. ’78); Sherman A. James (Ph.D., ’73); Ira J. Kodner (A.B. ’63, M.D. ’67); Horace Mitchell (A.B. ’68, M.A.Ed. ’69, Ph.D. ’74); and Chezia Thompson Cager Strand (A.B. ’73, M.A. ’75).

Bursky, a National Merit Scholarship and a Presidential Scholarship winner, entered WUSTL as a Langsdorf Fellow in 1974. He left with three diplomas: one in economics and two in chemical engineering.

After earning an MBA from Harvard University, Bursky co-founded Interlaken Capital Inc., which became one of the nation’s largest privately owned businesses within nine years, according to Forbes magazine. Today, following numerous other successful ventures, he is a founding and managing partner of Atlas Holdings LLC.

A member of the university’s Board of Trustees and the New York Regional Cabinet, Bursky and his wife, Jane Miller Bursky (A.B. ’78 in French), established the Spirit of Washington University Scholarship. This endowed fund provides a lifeline for students who would otherwise have to leave school because of family emergencies.

James is the inaugural Susan B. King Professor of Public Policy Studies at Duke University. He holds faculty appointments in sociology, in community and family medicine, and in African & African American studies.

James is a social epidemiologist, well known for his research on racial and ethnic health disparities. His concept “John Henryism” — named for the legendary black steel-driver who died after triumphing over a machine — formed one of the bases of his ongoing scholarly research, which focuses primarily on uncovering the multitude of factors that put African-Americans at risk for diseases that are preventable.

After graduating in 1964 with a degree in psychology from Talladega College near Birmingham, Ala., he served as captain in the U.S. Air Force until 1969, when he entered WUSTL to earn a doctorate in psychology.

Kodner, the Solon and Bettie Gershman Professor of Colon and Rectal Surgery, is founding director of WUSTL’s Center for the Study of Ethics and Human Values. It is one of the few WUSTL programs to bring together people from diverse fields to study, research and teach about ethical issues of critical importance to human lives.

Kodner, who earned both a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a medical degree from WUSTL, conceived the idea after collaborating on an ethics curriculum for surgery residents at the request of the American College of Surgeons.

Kodner also launched the medical school’s fellowship training program in colon and rectal surgery as well as the palliative care program. His professional service includes presidencies of the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery and the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons.

Mitchell, president of California State University, Bakersfield, since 2004, has had a mission throughout his illustrious career: to make an impact on students’ growth and development.

The first in his class at St. Louis Soldan High School, he received a scholarship to WUSTL, where he majored in psychology. As he pursued advanced degrees in education and then in counseling psychology (with an interest in what was called minority mental health), he served as assistant dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

In 1974, he accepted a joint appointment at WUSTL in counseling psychology and in African-American studies. In 1978, Mitchell moved on to the University of California, Irvine.

His wife, Barbara Jean Barrett Mitchell, is a WUSTL alumna (B.S. ’77 in psychology, MSW ’77, M.A.Ed. ’78).

Strand is committed to using art forms to solve problems and to develop a more progressive and humane environment. Strand is a poet-scholar-artist-activist. A faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she formerly served as executive vice president and senior consultant to two major community development corporations.

As director, she helped the Spectrum of Poetic Fire Series receive a Best of Baltimore award from Baltimore Magazine. The series encouraged her to write the creative writing curriculum and edit the book series “When Divas Laugh,” “When Divas Dance” and the bilingual “When Divas Howl at the Moon.”

Strand has received numerous awards, including the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in poetry. She also was a finalist for the 2007 F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest and the River Styx 2006 International Poetry Contest.

When Thach, professor of biology in Arts & Sciences and of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at the medical school, steps down as graduate school dean, he will move into epidemiology and environmental medicine, focusing on vector-borne disorders such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Thach’s innovative and much-emulated programs have greatly enhanced the experiences of WUSTL’s graduate students. He reduced time-to-degree and increased doctoral candidates’ completion rate by admitting fewer doctoral students. He secured financial support for six years of graduate education and offered year-round support to those with departmental approval.

He chairs the Responsive Ph.D. initiative, a consortium of research universities seeking to provide a richer purpose for graduate education in the United States. He recently completed leadership roles in the Association of Graduate Schools, the Council of Graduate Schools and the Graduate Record Examination Board.

Thach earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, summa cum laude, from Princeton University in 1961 and a doctorate in biochemistry from Harvard University in 1964.