Sinclair Bell, Professor of Art History
This round of NEH Fellowships and Awards for Faculty will support humanities scholars in researching and writing books on connections between the Black Death and the origins of the Italian Renaissance, the influence of John Milton’s blindness on the poetic language of Paradise Lost, the creation of American Catholicism, and a cultural history of the telephone in America.
“As we conclude an extremely difficult year for our nation and its cultural institutions, it is heartening to see so many excellent projects being undertaken by humanities scholars, researchers, curators, and educators,” said NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede. “These new NEH grants will foster intellectual inquiry, promote broad engagement with history, literature, and other humanities fields, and expand access to cultural collections and resources for all Americans.”
In this highly competitive funding cycle, NEH funded eight percent of the Fellowships proposals that it received.; Bell’s fellowship was one of nine awarded in the State of Illinois.
Bell’s research project will investigate how Roman artists represented the peoples whom they referred to as Aethiopians (i.e., “black” Africans) through visual representations and material culture, and explore issues related to the social functions, patronage, and viewership of these works. “Because the visual and material culture of the Roman Empire provides an abundant record of cultural encounters with Aethiopians, some real but most imagined, it renders visible complex formulations of foreignness, social hierarchies, and power—in short, of who was in and who was out in the empire. This project is therefore interdisciplinary in its aims and methodology, as it sits at the intersection of African studies, Classical studies, archaeology, and art history,” he said.
The project was previously supported by grants from the American Philosophical Society and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
Bell specializes in the art and archaeology of ancient Italy, and has taught courses in Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and Egyptian art and archaeology at NIU since 2008. He credits the recent support and success of his research project in large part to the highly engaged and diverse student body at the School of Art and Design, where his teaching and research interests have long been in productive synergy.
“Since 2011, I have taught five different seminars to undergraduate and graduate students on the visual and material culture related to socially marginalized groups in ancient Greece and Italy, including foreigners, slaves, and freed people,” Bell said. These seminars have drawn upon a rich and varied body of evidence as well as contemporary theoretical approaches in attempting to recapture the external perceptions toward and interior experiences of subaltern groups. As a consequence of teaching these seminars—as well as conducting my own object-driven research (through museum and archival study and fieldwork) and delivering numerous public lectures—I have become familiar with the ancient material culture and conversant in the wider background literature to this area of study that allowed me to lay the groundwork for a book-length study on this topic.”
A full list of grants from the NEH by geographic location is available.
Carolyn Kiesner, ’07, works directly with public sector leaders to help them develop energy projects for their communities at Engie Services.
As program and business development manager at Engie Services – North America, Carolyn Kiesner is fulfilling a promise she made to herself over 10 years ago.
After earning a degree in mechanical engineering from NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology in 2007, she found real-world experience working first in sales engineering and then in machine design for California Pavement Maintenance.
“It was great hands-on experience at the construction company,” she said. “I worked directly with the president and owner of the company and got to be a real engineer. I wrote a patent while I was there but, eventually, I wanted more. I had a bleeding-heart moment, watching a commercial about climate change, while sitting in my little construction trailer.
“I decided then and there that I wanted to work for another purpose and make more of an impact.”
Kiesner decided to transition into the energy industry, with the goal of helping to reverse climate change. She was hired on at Engie Services—a global energy company that provides its clients with quality services and environmentally responsible infrastructure management. With the mission of fighting climate change and reducing humans’ carbon footprint, the company was a perfect fit for Kiesner’s next chapter.
“In my role, I work directly with public sector leaders to help them develop energy projects for their communities,” Kiesner said. “We implement wide-scale, comprehensive projects that include solar technology, LED lighting retrofits, water upgrades… everything with the goal of reducing our customer’s carbon footprint and saving them money. Our projects pay for themselves over time, so it’s a matter of finding out what our clients want to accomplish and making sure the project benefits their community.”
There is also an educational and community impact in Kiesner’s work. Often, when they partner with school districts, Engie involves a team of teachers who create a STEM education program for the participating schools, helping them to understand and see the benefits of cleaner energy.
Truly dedicated to bettering her world, Kiesner was part of a team that identified solutions to help customers prevent the spread of the infection throughout their buildings’ HVAC ventilation/filtration and surface sanitation during the COVID-19 pandemic. To help girls learn about STEM careers, she has also volunteered with Pleasant Grove High School IDEA Academy in Elk Grove, California, and helped develop the annual Girls in STEM Workshop.
It is easy to see why Kiesner was recently named to the Sacramento Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” list for her work—a recognition that has only cemented Kiesner’s devotion to a higher purpose.
“This recognition helped me look back at everything I have done so far and to be proud of it,” she said. “I am humbled to have this sense of validation, and I hope I am making my mentors and those who influenced me proud. For me, as with so many, 2020 was a hard year, and this recognition was very uplifting and motivating for me in this time.”
Kiesner shared that the timing of this recognition has been bittersweet. Sadly, her father passed away from complications from COVID-19 right around the time she was notified that she was on the list.
“He was the reason I became an engineer, and I take after him in a lot of ways,” Kiesner said. “I see the award as a way to carry his torch.”
Hard work and curiosity were always a part of Kiesner’s world. When she was younger, Kiesner thought she wanted to be an interior designer. She loved art and design, certainly, but a talent for science and math led her down another path when it came time for her college studies.
Kiesner (second from right) is pictured at Engie’s Solar Program’s “Flip-the-Switch” Event with the company’s Board of Trustees at El Dorado Union High School District.
“I had two older brothers, and they influenced me to be one of the guys,” Kiesner said. “My dad was a mechanical engineer, so when it was time to choose my route, I decided to follow in his footsteps.”
Growing up in Oak Brook Terrace, Illinois, Kiesner knew that if she attended a college in Chicago, she would have to commute.
“As the daughter of strict Filipino parents, I didn’t want to stay home,” she said with a laugh. “I wanted my own experience, and not very many of my close friends were going to NIU, so I thought it would be the perfect place to go out on my own.”
Kiesner remembers appreciating the old, collegiate-looking buildings on campus, but when she saw the campus’ state-of-the-art engineering building, she fell in love with it.
“It was new and open, and I remember feeling like I could see myself there.”
During the next five years, Kiesner spent most of her time in that building, going to classes, doing labs, and planning for her future.
“I think I really chose NIU because there was this sense that, when you graduated, you were guaranteed a job,” she said. “So many Huskies seek out grads from NIU in the Chicago area, and that was a real bonus for me.”
Kiesner also enjoyed the smaller classes and individual attention she received while earning her degree.
“NIU provided me a place to focus on my degree and cultivate friendships,” she said. “We worked so hard. It was not easy, but NIU provided me the space to do what I needed to do to be able to go out and succeed later. NIU helped me to flourish in my major and beyond.”
As the inauguration of President Elect Joe Biden approaches, and one of the most contested elections in American history comes to a close, it is important to recognize that, in our country’s 245 years, very few presidential transitions have been as turbulent as 2020’s.
“In large part, peaceful transitions of presidential power are all we have known in America,” said Scot Schraufnagel, a professor in NIU’s Department of Political Science. “There is danger (for our democracy) without election legitimacy. Smooth transitions of power are a big issue all over the world, but in the United States, we kind of take it for granted. Pretending that we are somehow different or better than these countries is wrong. I don’t think we are immune to this sort of problem, and we shouldn’t pretend we are.”
In fact, America’s historical peaceful transfer is important to many aspects of our democracy, including our economy.
“I think in the past a peaceful transition spoke of the strength of our system of government, which oversees a very important market,” said Dr. Tammy Batson, professor and undergraduate coordinator for the Department of Economics. “In many underdeveloped countries, a transfer of power from one party to another only comes with war. The stability in our system has consistently kept the United States included in the list of top economic countries around the world.”
Schraufnagel noted that President Trump’s contestation of the election result and the ensuing movement to change that result, have been a good wake-up call for Americans.
“The fact that the election result was upheld suggests that our system is working, and that is good news,” he said.
A Brief History of Contested Elections
While most elections since George Washington’s presidency had clear results and uncontentious transition periods, there is a short list of contested elections in our history books. A handful of past elections had varying degrees of contested results.
The election of 1800—between Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson and Federalist John Adams—was plagued by problems. When presidential electors cast their votes, they failed to distinguish between the office of president and vice president on their ballots. Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr tied, and the election was thrown to the House of Representatives as required by Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. For six days, Jefferson and Burr essentially ran against each other in the House, and votes were tallied more than 30 times, with Jefferson eventually winning the vote.
The outcome in 1800 is usually said to have cemented the idea of a peaceful transition of power.
“The election of 1800 was a hotly contested race, with lots of negative advertising,” Schraufnagel said. “John Adams lost and boycotted the inauguration, but he stepped away peacefully, and he set the precedent, really, for all times. Up until that point, there was not lot of precedent for peaceful democratic transition. What Adams did set an example for the world and was truly historical. In Europe, people were astonished that a sitting president would give up his position of power.”
The 1824 presidential election was the tenth in America, between Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and William Crawford. The election ended up in the House, leading Andrew Jackson and his followers to label the outcome a “corrupt bargain,” with Jackson going on to win in the next two presidential elections.
“Of course, the most direct case of failure of a peaceful presidential transition was in 1860, when secession occurred because of Lincoln’s election. The Civil War followed,” said James Schmidt, distinguished teaching professor in the Department of History at NIU.
Four other elections were hotly contested in America’s history—1876, between Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden; 1888, when Republican nominee Benjamin Harrison, a former Senator from Indiana, defeated incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland; 1960, when Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy defeated incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon; and 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore. The results of these historic elections were all much closer than 2020’s contested race. However, in all of these cases, after the initial challenging of the election result, a peaceful transition of power ensued.
“In three of those four cases, the candidate who became president only won the electoral vote and not the popular vote,” said Schraufnagel. “So, it made sense that those elections were tumultuous, because the popular vote did not win the presidency. In the fourth instance, Kennedy only received 100,000 more votes than Nixon, which is .02% more of the popular vote. That is practically a tie. In 2020, Biden won by over 7 million votes, 4.4% more than Trump, and he secured both the electoral and popular votes.”
The 2000 race is widely considered the closest election in U.S. history. On election night, the electoral votes in Florida were still undecided. Returns showed that Bush had won Florida by such a close margin that a state recount was required. A month-long series of legal battles led to the highly controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision Bush v. Gore, which ended the recount, and Bush won Florida by 537 votes, a margin of 0.009%.
“I was teaching at that time,” Schraufnagel said. “I remember a lot of students were upset that Gore conceded as quickly as he did. He had won the popular vote. If there was ever an election that was going to be challenged, it would have been that one, but Gore stepped down.
Setting a New Precedent
It is clear that this moment is history is different. Trump’s unacceptance of the 2020 election results has shown a possible paradigm shift.
“One of the hallmarks of Trump’s presidency has been his willingness to ignore the precedents and traditions established by his predecessors,” said Dr. Ferald Bryan, a professor in NIU’s Department of Communication, who has studied political communication for more than three decades.
“Andrew Jackson was really the first populist president, and he could use some coarse language on the stump, so perhaps he is not a bad comparison (to our current president),” Bryan said. “But he could also be very suave in front of the right audience, and you never see Trump slip into a different persona. He loves his bluster and braggadocio.”
From a rhetorical standpoint, Bryan believes, Trump has largely been a one-note orator, choosing to use hyperbole and rising to his best on the campaign trail.
“Most presidents are able to rise to the moment—Reagan after the Challenger explosion, George W. Bush after 9-11, and Barack Obama at Sandy Hook, are examples,” Bryan said. “It would have been very impressive if this past week Trump could have done a 5-6-minute speech reminding us about why it is important to respect the principles of democracy.”
Bryan suspects Trump will buck tradition one last time by foregoing a farewell address.
“That tradition dates back to George Washington. In that speech he specifically denounced the rise of partisanship because it could polarize and divide the country,” Bryan said.
Still, as Americans, we must remember that peaceful presidential transitions are not guaranteed in our Constitution. Rather, our forefathers were imagining a very different system of election, where back-biting campaigns and the concept of one nominee conceding were not part of process. The original design of the Electoral College aimed for the electors to be chosen by the legislatures of their states, not by popular vote. These electors then met to select a president, picking from the “best men” among known citizens who might be eligible.
“The drafters did not even envision permanent political parties,” Schmidt said. “Popular selection of electors evolved over the early nineteenth century. Candidates did not even really campaign for president themselves. In other words, most of what we think of now as a presidential campaign, including a concession, was not even imagined by the drafters, or if it was, they were trying to prevent it.”
With Trump not recognizing this election’s results, it leaves many to wonder what comes next. Some experts are saying it only lays bare the weaknesses that already existed in our democracy.
A Symptom of the Real Problem?
“We already had a weak democracy, one in which the popular will is regularly ignored and only half the population bothers to vote,” said Rosemary Feurer, an associate professor in NIU’s Department of History. “Peaceful transitions are not the most important ingredient for democracy. Some political scientists agree that we live in an oligarchy, where money and spectacle deliver a country that is undemocratic at its core. Control by the wealthy of elections was already a core element of undemocratic governance.”
Experts like Schraufnagel and Feurer suggest that there are many safeguards our country could put in place to protect our democracy.
“We need third parties,” said Schraufnagel, who has written a book called Third Party Blues: The Truth and Consequences of Two Party Dominance, which explains the U.S.’s election laws used to prevent third parties from having much success. “The system is rigged now against third voices. For instance, the Republican party today, that’s not the whole party, but that group with more extreme views doesn’t have anywhere else to go for a party. We need more voices.”
Schraufnagel also noted that the way that we finance elections needs to be changed.
“We need to cap campaign spending. To run for the U.S. House, for instance, when an incumbent politician is retiring, you need at least $2-4 million of your own money that you’re willing to spend, or you have to have the personality type to go ask for that money every two years. So, I can’t run for Congress because I know I cannot win without (that money), and I am not willing to try and raise that amount of money. So, the type of people who are serving in Congress are either very wealthy or have the personality to consistently be asking others for money. If we capped campaign spending, it would bring a different group of people into office.”
Spotlighting these issues seem to suggest that, while turbulent transitions of power are not healthy for a democracy, they are only a potential symptom of a larger issue.
“I think it’s clear that Trump will accept the election results,” Feurer said. “We don’t have to look to other countries. We have had elections where the Electoral College vote did not reflect the will of the majority, and that has been accepted and normalized, so a peaceful transition resulted from an undemocratic result. A peaceful transition is good, but if you are worried about a robust democracy, we need to think of a path that gets money and spectacle out of politics.”
The DeKalb County Community Foundation and the NIU Art Museum are thrilled to announce the Friends of NIU Art Museum Endowment Fund. This new Designated Fund provides annual financial support to the NIU Art Museum to further their mission of serving campus and community by balancing traditional and contemporary art to explore connections through visual culture. The Fund was created by long-time NIU supporters and local philanthropists, Jerry and Annette Johns.
“We are grateful to longtime friends of the museum, Annette and Jerry Johns, who generously thought to start this endowment fund,” said Josephine Burke, director of the NIU Art Museum. “Their foresight and valuing of cultural assets within the community will help to ensure our ability to continue to serve the greater DeKalb community now and in the future. This vital fund helps to support the museum’s exhibitions, programs and the preservation of its permanent collection.”
Since 2002, Jerry and Annette Johns have shared their passion for education, the arts, and the community they love through establishing several endowed Funds with the Community Foundation.
Annette’s diverse background and interests include studying and teaching in the areas of education (elementary and college level), reading, philosophy, and theatre arts. She has served as part of the Kishwaukee Symphony Associates, the Bethlehem Lutheran Church Food Pantry and Church Council, and as a docent with the Ellwood House.
Jerry, along with Annette, grew up in Michigan and received his Bachelor’s degree in education, a Master’s degree in elementary education, and a Ph.D. in education with a specialization in reading. He has served on the Board of Directors for a variety of local nonprofit organizations and has served through his church and campus ministry.
Jerry and Annette’s personal and professional interests are clearly reflected in the Funds that they directly spearheaded at the Foundation. “We feel very strongly about supporting local organizations that enrich all our lives,” they said. “The DeKalb County Community Foundation helps you put your money where your heart is.” The Funds they established include: Aikins Theatre Arts Award Fund, Ellwood House Museum Fund, Jerry and Annette Johns CommunityWorks Fund, Jerry and Annette Johns Future Teachers Scholarship Fund, Jerry L. Johns NIU Literacy Clinic Endowment Fund, Johns Family Donor Advised Fund, and the Friends of NIU Art Museum Endowment Fund.
Donations to any Fund at the Community Foundation, including the Friends of NIU Art Museum Endowment Fund, can be made online, or by mail to the DeKalb County Community Foundation, 475 DeKalb Avenue, Sycamore, Ill. 60178. For questions or additional information on how to start your own fund at the Community Foundation, please contact Executive Director Dan Templin at (815) 748-5383 or [email protected].
NIU’s 125th anniversary celebration officially kicked off in January 2020, a century-and-a-quarter after the university was founded in 1895. A 25-member committee created the outline for a year-long observance of the university milestone, but that changed when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
As a result, NIU will continue to commemorate history in 2021—when it is safe to do so.
The 125th+ Anniversary celebration will allow members of the university community to experience many of the exciting and informative events that had to be postponed.
“Things didn’t go as planned in 2020, but we hope to reschedule a number of events for 2021,” said assistant dean of students and committee member, Kelly Olson. “The committee created a really great calendar of events, and wants the campus and community to have the opportunity to take part in them.”
Special performances like “Women at Northern: The first 125 years,” a dramatized lecture based on the research of Barbara Cole Peters, and “A Showcase of Southeast Asian Visual and Performing Arts” will take place at a later date. Events like NIU Cares Day and exhibits like “Crimson Days: The Early Story of NIU” are also planned. The remaining two chapters of NIU’s Key Moments will be released in 2021.
“The 125 year anniversary is an accomplishment to be proud of and now, more than ever, we look forward to continuing to celebrate it together,” said assistant dean of students and committee member, Kelly Olson.
Matt Streb, Chief of Staff to the President and 125th anniversary committee co-chair, concurred.
“Many people expressed to us how disappointed they were that we could not hold some of the wonderful events that we had planned,” said Streb. “We are delighted to be able to hold these events in 2021 as part of our 125th+ Anniversary celebration.”
Learn more about NIU’s 125th+ Anniversary celebration.