Marking the beginning of a new chapter in Arcadia University’s history, Dr. Ellen Skilton-Sylvester, professor of education, was named The Rosemary and Walter Blankley Endowed Chair in Education. The University’s first donor designated chair results from a $1 million gift from Walter and Rosemary Deniken Blankley ’57, ’06H, reflecting their longstanding commitment to the transformative power of education.
Approximately 200 people, including 17 trustees, President Emerita Dr. Bette Landman, past president Dr. Jerry M. Greiner, students, alumni, faculty, and staff, gathered on March 6 to witness this milestone event in the Commons Great Room.
“It is entirely appropriate that this endowed Chair should be in the field of education,” said President Nicolette DeVille Christensen before she presented Skilton-Sylvester with a medallion signifying her appointment. “The education of the next generation of teachers is one of the greatest investments in the future that we can make. When I read Dr. Skilton-Sylvester’s three-year proposal…it was clear to see how her work aligns perfectly both with Rosemary and Walter’s philosophy on the unrivaled power of education and Arcadia’s commitment to expanding civic education at the local and global levels.”
An educational anthropologist and applied linguist, Skilton-Sylvester, who also chairs the Department of Curriculum, Cultures, and Child/Youth Studies, has proposed “Documenting and Creating Arts-Based Local/Global Civic Education,” a project which will use the arts and narrative analysis to expand and understand local/global civic education at Arcadia and across community and school contexts in the Philadelphia region, the Midwest, the South, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It will develop new tools for globally focused teaching, learning, and scholarship that put imagination, creativity, and the arts (especially theater, storytelling, and creative writing) at the center.
Pointing to the current precarious situation of the educational system in the United States with “shrinking budgets, persistent poverty, shallow understandings of how to assess learning, and lack of support…from leaders in government, business, and the philanthropic world,” Dr. Leif Gustavson, interim dean of the School of Education, said “with challenging times comes real opportunity for innovation and change. Rosemary and Walt, your gift of this endowed chair helps us to be a force for transforming education at this important moment and in perpetuity.”
The Blankleys’ gift is in keeping with their dedication to education as a major aspect of their philanthropic mission. Walter, who worked for AMETEK, Inc. for 41 years, helped direct the company’s efforts in early childhood development and reading programs in more than five dozen countries, and Rosemary has served as an active community volunteer, philanthropist, and fundraiser, receiving the prestigious Ernest T. Stewart Award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) in recognition of exceptional service to her alma mater. Their tireless work with the Guadalupe Center, which aims to break the cycle of poverty in the struggling agricultural community of Immokalee, Fla., through educational, social, and other support programs, has resulted in higher educational opportunities for several first-generation students. In fact, such work has helped to produce the Blankley Scholars Program at Arcadia, an initiative named in honor of the Blankleys and funded by the University, which provides three students in the Center’s Tutor Corps full, four-year scholarships each year.
Reflecting on her own dreams of attending college to become a physical education teacher, Rosemary compared her single mother’s annual income of $2,000 to Beaver College’s then tuition rate of $1,600, saying “I knew that this should have been out of my reach.” However, a scholarship, working through the summers, and what Rosemary called “creative bookkeeping” in Beaver College’s Finance Department allowed her to graduate free of debt, saying “I left Beaver feeling that my education could take me any place I wanted to go.”
After years of professional and personal success, Walter noted that he and Rosemary began to reflect and nurtured a desire to “see that others had the same opportunity for success as we did,” by dedicating their philanthropic efforts to education. These efforts have born fruit not only at the Guadalupe Center but also with the investiture of Skilton-Sylvester as The Rosemary and Walter Blankley Endowed Chair in Education.
“Ellen clearly epitomizes our values,” said Walter, who concluded his remarks at the ceremony by thanking Arcadia University for all they have provided Rosemary and for “allowing us to give back in such a satisfying way.”
Skilton-Sylvester recently spent some time in Florida, where she learned more about the Blankleys’ involvement in the community.
“Hearing Walter Blankley’s story of how he first got involved with the Guadalupe Center, gained new understandings about the importance of early childhood education in immigrant and migrant communities, and learned about the lived experiences of families harvesting tomatoes in a community not far from his own, I am inspired by the generativity and creativity that I hear in his voice and that I see in the work of this thriving education center full of learning and play,” Skilton-Sylvester said. “Of course, this is what research and creative processes are all about—the thrill of moving beyond the edges of our thinking and understanding into unchartered territory.”
The Rosemary and Walter Blankley Endowed Chair in Education will enable faculty members in the School of Education to push the boundaries of research in the field for the life of the University, passing from faculty member to faculty member, supporting their various research and service endeavors. Earlier in the ceremony, Dr. Steve O. Michael, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, explained the importance of endowed chairs to universities: “They allow faculty members to venture into new frontiers in their particular disciplines, they provide the necessary time and resources to pursue innovative research and scholarship, and they play an essential role in helping universities recruit and retain faculty of the highest quality.”
As the recipient of The Rosemary and Walter Blankley Endowed Chair in Education, Skilton-Sylvester summed up how she felt on the verge of her new endeavors and expressed her sincere appreciation for the opportunities it will afford her as a scholar.
“Perhaps because I am going to get to spend three years connecting the dots of my past, current, and future teaching and scholarship in creative and complex ways, I have not been this excited about my work in a very long time,” said Skilton-Sylvester. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Rosemary and Walter Blankley.”