When Rob Catlett, Associate Professor of Math and Economics and the Director of the Center for Economic, was interrupted mid lecture by the smiling faces of the provost and the president of Emporia State, he knew exactly what was coming. From watching several videos of his colleagues receive the Roe R. Cross Distinguished Professor Award, he recognized the black and gold balloons, the wide smiles, and the celebration. One of the many things setting him aside from previous winners is that he lost his wife one week prior to the classroom visit.
The joy and satisfaction combined with remorse for his loss was only one portion of what makes Catlett’s win so unique.
“Under normal circumstances it would have been incredibly delightful,” Catlett said. “It’s an incredible honor but it does not balance with that low. Some of the high points in my life and some of the low points, in this case a high point, it’s incredible but in this case it didn't match the low point from the week before.”
Also setting Catlett aside from other winners of the highest honor for a professor at ESU, is his modesty, and his strong belief he was no more deserving than any other faculty member.
“There are more deserving people than me,” Catlett said. “I could name them. They're absolutely spectacular professors. They’re absolutely amazing professors and they havent won the award in part because they haven't been nominated. They’re doing amazing things with their students and somehow they weren't selected.”
Catlett’s mutual appreciation for his fellow faculty members and his students is boundless. Not only are his students a huge driving force but so are the relationships he has with other faculty members.
“My students are what drive me. They’re what motivate me. It’s not money. I've told multiple university presidents I think I’m paid too much. I would do this for a whole lot less. I would be a strong advocate for a pay cut for me. When we’re going through budget cuts and were likely to go through some significant ones and there are people that are likely to lose their jobs I would much rather lose some pay than to lose my colleagues… There are people who do really good work and we are likely to lose them in a round of budget cuts and we don't have a whole lot of choice.”
Although Catlett was surprised, Bekah Selby, professor in math and economics and close friend to Catlett, was not. Selby had been one of several colleagues who nominated Catlett for the award highlighting his willingness to improve the good of the community and ESU through strong support of his students and colleagues.
“He has been an incredibly supportive colleague and made sure that I was (supported) as a new faculty member but also a woman on campus and made sure I have the support that I need, the voice that I deserve and that we are supporting other people that way...He's constantly helping reach out to other parts of the community trying to help improve health and education as well… When I got here, he started bringing me along to every single thing that he was doing so that I could get the network in place and to be successful...It's hard to think of having a better colleague than Rob.”
Despite all of the challenges Catlett faced during the semester he remained incredibly dedicated to his students, in turn giving them an opportunity to prove their loyalty to him.
“He is so genuine and willing to help others that I just feel like he's truly a special and unique person,” said Erica Self, grad student for business administration. “There's not a lot of people who are that willing to help others that I just feel like he is truly a special and unique person. He will really go out of his way to do whatever the student needs. I’ve been very fortunate to have him… I really think he deserves this award.”
Of the many titles-- Director of Center for Community Research, Director and founding member for the Center for Economic Education, member of the Economic Education Advisory Council, member of the Executive Committee for the American Democracy Project's E-citizenship Initiative and the Secretary of Kansas Jumpstart Board of Directors,what Catlett believes is his most important job is serving his students.
“As a professor, well to me at least, my most important role is to try to help students learn,” said Catlett. “To try to facilitate that and then to create new knowledge in a way of scholarly work and research and service trying to improve the community.”
Catlett works to improve the lives of his students and colleagues even outside of ESU. When Selby began the transition from Oregan to Kansas, Catlett wanted her to feel as welcome as possible, even helping her with her apartment search.
“He took an active effort to help me try to find a place to live. He found a rental for me from a distance so I was in Oregon and he went above and beyond to help me try to find a rental to move into here. He even took me on some Zoom phone calls to show me some houses I might be potentially interested in buying while I was still in Oregon. He was helping me find a place to live and so when I moved here, it was actually already set up and had furniture in place. As far as other faculty members go, they're not afraid to ask him for help on even personal issues, because he's just so generous, but also very friendly and we trust him. As colleagues, the students definitely go to him because he's very honest with them, but will also go above and beyond to help them and make sure to go above and beyond to help make sure that they have the resources that they need.”
Even with Selby’s students across the country, Catlett still felt passionately about making Selby’s teaching experience and the learning experience of her students more effective and enjoyable.
“When I first moved here, I was teaching classes at the University of Oregon in which I didn't really have a good working relationship with any of my students. He really advised me to open up, tell them about myself and be honest with them, and get to know my students really well, and I started doing that and my classrooms became a much more open environment where we could have really important discussions about economics and the students started to bond better...People are excited to go now. And I, as far as my teaching goes, I'm not afraid to experiment as I used to be.”
Ryan Tahan, Research Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University, said Catlett’s kindness, genuine spirit, and true thirst for excitement make him memorable as a professor and role model alike.
“Rob's one of those guys that is extremely bright and he sees the world in fun and interesting ways and so one of the stories he used to tell in economics class was he would take road trips and he wouldn't take any cash with him...And what he would try to do is he would try to figure out, ‘Well, here's what the weather conditions are, here's how the car normally performs, here's what the terrain is like and I think I can make it from point A to point B with this much gas and just to sort of like up the stakes. I'm going to not take any cash with me to see what happens.’ But the thing that was tremendous about it...It's just that it's that sense of fun and sense of curiosity and wonder about the world that he would make that sort of game up and he did it in a very analytical fashion so he's really figuring out the terrain, figuring out your route figuring out how the car would perform, figuring all those things out and then seeing how far he could get anyway. I loved it.. In addition to all the other things Rob's great fun. He's got a great joy of living.”
His joy of life and positivity is even apparent to students during test taking time.
“He doesn't call tests or exams, ‘exams,’” said Self. “He calls them ‘celebrations of learning’....(He) really makes students comfortable and confident and more willing to succeed because I feel like in this structure of academics students are afraid to answer because they think they have the wrong answer or they think they're going to fail so they choose not to try because they don't think they're right or aren't sure if they're right. He greatly encourages if you have an idea, share it and we can talk about it.”
Catlett incorporates his love of life along with his greatest passion, civic engagement, in his teaching and his other roles by inspiring students and other faculty members to make long lasting changes within the community.
“Leadership is an activity, it's not a position, it's not me being a leader, it's people seeing the opportunity, engaging others, listening to unusual voices and all that kind of stuff,” Catlett said. “So all that comes together to form this civic engagement thing and what we hope is gonna happen is people are gonna do that when they're in college and then they're going to continue with that in their professional careers. That was the transforming feature of my professional career.”