Richard Mullins ’98 given top professorial honor at Xavier University
After learning from some of the top professors in the nation as Centre students, many Centre alumni go on to become important educators themselves. One of those alumni is Richard Mullins ’98, who recently received the Bishop Fenwick Teacher of the Year Award, given annually to a tenured faculty member at Xavier University—a historically Jesuit school in Cincinnati—by Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit Honor Society.
“This is a very important award to me,” Mullins says. “I consider it the highest honor you can receive as a faculty member at Xavier for a couple of reasons. First, it is for the entire university, covering all three colleges—the Williams College of Business, the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Social Sciences Health and Education. And second, it is decided on almost entirely by students. Research awards, the granting of tenure and other similar honors have as part of them evaluations of students, but my colleagues are involved in those decisions. Thus, this award is most important to me because it is the students who make the ultimate decision.”
Mullins found the award all the more meaningful because of the stigma that professors who teach such challenging courses as organic chemistry wouldn’t be nominated by students.
“Since the students are the decision makers, it was often thought that a professor teaching a ‘hard science’ class couldn’t win an award like this,” he says. “The thought was that students would never nominate a professor for this award if the class was too challenging. Being one of a very few science professors to have ever won this award is pretty exciting.”
Teaching classes that challenge students to work hard and think critically is gratifying for Mullins.
“Because of my discipline, I most commonly teach pre-med students. Thus, they have typically been very high achievers and have very high expectations of themselves,” Mullins continues. “And yet, organic chemistry is a very difficult course—very often, it is the first time they have been challenged. I enjoy helping these students meet academic adversity for the first time in their lives, observing and guiding their response to it, and then celebrating with them when they overcome whatever obstacles I have put in front of them. It sounds cliché, but seeing these students meet these challenges and accomplish their goals, and then having them acknowledge that you had a role in it, is very fulfilling.”
Mullins highly enjoys being an educator, citing working with students as the highlight of his job.
“Knowing what I do now, regardless of what discipline I ended up studying, being a college professor—especially at a school that focuses on undergraduates—is the best job there is,” Mullins says. “I enjoy the camaraderie of the students, seeing them work hard to achieve their ambitious goals. Getting to work with the best and the brightest students on campus, willing to challenge you and respond to your challenges at every turn, makes my job much more interesting.”
Mullins says taking classes with Centre Professor of Chemistry Joe Workman was influential on his own path to being a professor.
“I say with complete sincerity that, were it not for him and the fact that he embodies the ideal of a Centre education, I would not be a college professor today,” Mullins says. “As a result, in teaching, I often find myself trying to live up to the excellent standard that he and other faculty members at Centre have modeled to me.”
For Mullins, the real joy of teaching comes not from winning awards and being recognized, but from doing work that continues to challenge and excite him.
“Organic chemistry is a neat field of study—it has some artistic elegance to it. It requires a high level of creativity, conceptual understanding and problem solving,” he says. “Add to that the fact that I get to work with undergraduate students in the process, where I get to observe them transitioning from book-centered learning to becoming full-fledged laboratory scientists—it is pretty easy to stay interested.”