A physics professor who makes music using electrical sparks, a soccer coach who led William & Mary to success on the national stage and a leading proponent of engaging descendant communities in historical research — these are among the recent recipients of the Plumeri Awards, which recognize faculty and athletics leadership excellence.
Global business executive, philanthropist and civic leader Joseph J. Plumeri II ’66, D.P.S. ’11 established the awards in 2009 to reward outstanding faculty and enhance the recipients’ teaching, research and mentorship. Because the pandemic disrupted in-person gatherings during the past two years, recipients of the 2020, 2021 and 2022 Plumeri Awards were honored on Friday, May 13, at a ceremony in the Hunter Hall Ballroom of William & Mary’s Alumni House.
Plumeri told the award recipients at Friday’s event that he felt overwhelmed with emotion thinking about the difference they had made for William & Mary.
“These are called excellence awards, and I love to be around people who excel, people who achieve, people who rewarded for their hard work,” he said. “I hope you feel the sense of appreciation that I feel for you and what you have accomplished.”
In addition to Plumeri, the event featured remarks by W&M Rector John E. Littel P ’22, President Katherine Rowe and Provost Peggy Agouris. Three of the 30 award recipients spoke on behalf of their cohorts about how funds from the Plumeri Awards have greatly enhanced their work in a multitude of ways. A video shown at the event also presented students’ perspectives on the impact the faculty and athletics honorees are having through their teaching, mentorship and research.
More than 200 faculty members have benefited from Plumeri’s generosity during the past 14 years. Since 2019, the Plumeri Awards also have included recognition of an outstanding coach or athletics staff member. Names and biographies for each recipient can be found online at the Plumeri Awards page.
Recipients of the highly competitive awards are selected based on their accomplishments in the areas of discovery, scholarship, teaching and athletics. Also beginning in 2019, the number of recipients was reduced from 20 to 10 and the award was increased from $10,000 to $20,000, to be used by the faculty member over a three-year period.
Plumeri recalled that when he served on the William & Mary Board of Visitors over a decade ago, he started to question all the discussion about constructing new buildings: “One day I said, ‘When are we going to talk about the people who are the reason we’re here? When are we going to talk about the professors?” Without them, he added, there would be no teaching or learning.
After stepping down from the board in 2008, Plumeri said, “I wanted to do something to make sure everybody is reminded about the fact that this place is compelling because of you.”
“Most of the world is competent,” he added. “They go about their task and do their job. But it’s the people who are compelling that move the world. The people who are compelling are the ones that stand out in the crowd. The ones who are compelling are the ones who make their presence known. As historic as this wonderful place is, it wouldn’t be compelling without you. It would simply be competent.”
Author of the national bestselling book “The Power of Being Yourself,” Plumeri is currently a senior advisor to global investment firm Kohlberg, Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P. (KKR) and executive chairman of Switzerland-based Selecta Group, a leading provider of coffee and convenience food in workplaces and public spaces. Previously, he served as vice chairman of the Board of Directors of First Data Corp., the world’s largest payments and business solutions company and he held a variety of leadership roles over more than 30 years at Citigroup, including co-CEO of Shearson Lehman Brothers, CEO of Primerica Financial Services and CEO of CitiBank North America.
During his 2011 W&M Commencement address — hailed by NPR as one of the best commencement speeches ever — Plumeri said that William & Mary helped him realize his dreams. Through the Plumeri Awards, he ensures that exceptional professors will continue to help new generations of students channel their passion toward lives of purpose.
In opening Friday’s ceremony, Littel said he often hears from alumni about how meaningful interactions with professors shaped their lives.
“Whether it’s data analysis at the Global Research Institute or renewable energy studies with a chemistry professor or choreography in the theater department, it is the excellence of our faculty and teaching, research and service that has distinguished William & Mary since our very beginning,” he said.
Plumeri’s decision to establish the awards reflects the impact that W&M professors had on his life, Littel said, adding that, like Plumeri, each of the recipients exemplifies success: “They have found and shared their purpose and their students and our institution are the better for it.”
Rowe recalled that during her first meeting with Plumeri, he told her that the job of William & Mary’s leadership was continually to ask, “What else? What’s next?” — and those are questions Plumeri asks whenever she sees him.
“What’s next has turned out to be a fundamental practice of post-pandemic,” Rowe said. “We’ve learned that what it means to be normal now is to be always ready to adapt in order to excel, to sustain and advance the mission.” She described Plumeri Award recipients as restless achievers who create new knowledge and transform how teaching happens: “The people who win these awards every year are truly outstanding among a community that’s outstanding.”
Rowe thanked Plumeri for his leadership, generosity and lifelong commitment to his alma mater.
“Joe is known for seeing potential in people and organizations and inspiring them to greatness,” she said. “We are fortunate to have him to encourage William & Mary and its people to excellence.”
Before reading the name of each recipient, Agouris noted that the Plumeri Awards celebrate the fact that learning and growth are cultivated both inside and outside the classroom through instruction, research, collaboration, mentorship and mentorship — a holistic approach that distinguishes William & Mary.
“Each one of our recipients has a long list of accomplishments and each one is as impressive as they are unique,” she said.
Speaking on behalf of the 2020 recipients, Lindy L. Johnson, an associate professor of English education and co-director of the Center for Innovation in Learning Design, described how Plumeri Award funds allowed her to develop a project to reimagine summer school for children who need learning assistance or whose families can’t afford the cost of summer camp or going on vacation. Summer school curriculum often focuses on remediation and repetitive exercises, she noted.
“But you don’t get kids up to speed by going slower, and you don’t get kids excited about learning through worksheets,” Johnson said. “Here are these three months in the year, and it seemed like a wasted opportunity, so I wondered, ‘What can we do with these three months? Could we create something better for these kids and their teachers?’”
Johnson and 2021 Plumeri recipient Meredith Kier, Gerdelman Family Term Distinguished Associate Professor of Science Education and director of secondary science education, designed a creative, interdisciplinary and hands-on summer school experience for local middle school students as well as a research study to investigate the impact of the program.
“Rather than worksheets where they memorize the formulas for force and motion, these young people created and launched rockets, analyzing how aerodynamic forces are generated by the fin and nose cone,” she said. “Rather than quizzes on the periodic table, students studied the chemical properties of cosmetic ingredients and in small teams created their own inclusive makeup lines.”
William & Mary undergraduate and graduate students helped mentor and support the middle school students and served as researchers for the project. The summer school initiative began in 2021 as a pilot program with 40 students. Based on the program’s success, it will be expanded this summer to accommodate over 300 students, with expanded curriculum offerings and more involvement by W&M students.
“Our research study found that students’ motivation and interest in STEM increased and the students absolutely loved working with William & Mary undergraduates,” she said. “One of the middle school students who lives just 11 miles from this campus had never heard of William & Mary before participating in this project. At the end of the project, she proudly told us that she planned to attend law school here.”
Marcus C. Holmes, an associate professor of government and academic director of the William & Mary-St Andrews Joint Degree Programme, said that when he received his Plumeri Award in 2021, he was beginning the manuscript for a book on diplomacy.
“Given the current events of the world, it might seem like this is sort of a quaint topic — maybe this would be better suited for a different period of time. But I actually think the opposite is true,” Holmes said. “The problems we face in the world — whether it’s the war in Ukraine, pandemics, food shortages, climate change — they require leadership to get us through. They require creative ideas to get us through. They require talking and cooperation to get us through. So while diplomacy might not be able to prevent every crisis that we see in the world, I do think it may well be the only way out for many of the problems that we face.”
Holmes said the Plumeri Award has allowed him to bring his book closer to the finish line and has given his student partners an opportunity to learn how to conduct research and pursue hard-to-find documents in such distant places such as India and Pakistan.
“I know that everyone in this room has benefited tremendously from Mr. Plumeri’s commitment to William & Mary,” Holmes said. “Your support allows each of us to develop our own scholarship, our own diplomacy projects, if you will, and engage deeply with our students in the process.”
Representing the 2022 recipients, Dr. Virginia Wells, chief medical officer, director of medical services and team physician for William & Mary Athletics, said that she is using Plumeri Award funds to implement the Athletic Fueling Station, an initiative that will optimize nutrient timing before and after exercise, thereby promoting recovery, reducing injury and increasing performance. This innovation would not have happened without Plumeri’s generosity, she said.
“So on behalf of the 2022 cohort, I want to express our sincere gratitude for your benevolent support that enables the faculty of William & Mary to advocate our work to achieve the best for our students,” Wells aid. “Your commitment to excellence is an example to all of us.”