The Pro Bene Meritis award is the highest honor bestowed by the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin. Since 1984, the annual award has been given to alumni, faculty members and friends of the college who are committed to the liberal arts, have made outstanding contributions in professional or philanthropic pursuits or have participated in service related to the college.
Name: Austin Gleeson, B.S. Physics ’60, Drexel Institute of Technology; M.S. Physics ’63 and Ph.D. Physics ’65, University of Pennsylvania
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Austin Gleeson teaches physics in the Plan II Honors Program and has won numerous teaching awards, including the Jean Holloway Teaching Excellence Award and the Chad Oliver Plan II Teaching Award, for his exciting and engaging teaching style. Upon receiving the Pro Bene Meritis award at the college’s annual spring banquet, Gleeson surprised the audience by announcing a generous gift to help fund five professorships in Plan II, including the Elizabeth B. Gleeson Professorship in Plan II Physics named for his late wife.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
I have had the good fortune to be able to add to the knowledge base and analytic skills of generations of young Texans who constitute the current and future leaders of our society.
What do you find most exciting about teaching?
Teaching and growing in your discipline go hand in hand. Each new crop of Plan II students challenges me to expand my knowledge and insight of my subject and to feel confident that I have helped prepare our future leaders to understand the world in which they live.
What’s your teaching philosophy?
To me teaching is engagement. The teacher, students and subject must all be involved in the process. The students must deal with the subject at the most fundamental level; the teacher must engage with the students; and the teacher and students must grow from the experience.
Other than knowledge in physics, what do you hope students gain from your class?
Students in my class do learn some physics but, more importantly, they discover that the world we live in is understandable, and our position in it is greatly enhanced by having the ability to analyze it with strong analytic and quantitative reasoning.
In your opinion, how can STEM students benefit from a liberal arts education?
For most people, a university education is the final formal character development experience. All of our students deserve a balance of insight, reason and appreciation in their exposure. In my class, I try to bring to the students a mix of all majors and insights into an understanding of our physical world; expand their analytic skills; and with simple quantitative techniques, provide access to a nuanced “numerate” worldview. Most STEM students develop powerful technical skills and world views from their university experience probably to have them languish in their later lives, but they must also experience the literate, historic and artful skills to be able to read their world experiences in a “literate” framework. Both frameworks, literate and numerate, must be developed for success in both their personal and professional lives.
What inspired you to establish and partially fund the first Plan II professorships?
My experience with Plan II has been incredibly positive. Because of the administrative organization of the university, it has no standing faculty and no direct significant input on faculty raises or promotions. I know that in my own discipline it has been very difficult to find faculty to participate. For that reason, I established the Elizabeth B. Gleeson Professorship in Plan II Physics, expecting a one-for-one match, and four additional professorships through a one-for-two match, with the discipline and naming left open to provide Plan II administration with strong affirmative tools to lure faculty from a broad range of disciplines into the network called the Plan II Faculty.