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Gift Supports 'New Way of Thinking About History'

New Center for Historical Studies supports undergraduate, graduate research

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February 24, 2010 | by Alan K. Cubbage
When Kate Stephensen was recruited to come to Northwestern University as a member of the women’s swimming team, she had no idea that her educational journey would include a deep dive into the historical archives of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

But the junior history and secondary education major from Davis, Cal., found herself doing just that as she assisted Timothy Breen, professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, on a study of people in the Maine area who remained loyal to England during the Revolutionary War. Stephensen is one of a small group of undergraduate students who are able to do intensive research guided by leading faculty members in the history department in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, thanks to a significant gift from Nicholas D. Chabraja (WCAS64, L67) and contributions from other alumni.

The newly created Nicholas D. Chabraja Center for Historical Studies represents “an innovative way of thinking about history,” said Breen, who is the director of the Center.

“We really wanted to do something different here at Northwestern,” Breen said. “The Center provides the opportunity for historians to talk about the core methodological and interpretive problems that drive our discipline.

“In addition, we are providing opportunities for some of our best undergraduates to engage in research. And we are setting up an international program where our graduate students are seeing how history is practiced and perceived in other cultures,” Breen added.

Initially funded by the University, the Center now is supported by a significant endowment gift from Chabraja, who is a member of Northwestern’s board of trustees and the chairman and former chief executive officer of General Dynamics Corp., and his wife, Eleanor.

In addition, the gift from the Chabrajas, along with gifts from a number of alumni who had studied with long-time history professor Richard Leopold have contributed to a new fund named in his honor that enables students such as Stephensen to be paid researchers working under the guidance of faculty members.

“Eleanor and I are very pleased to be able to make this gift to support the new Center for Historical Studies,” Nicholas Chabraja said. “Professor Leopold was someone who was very influential in terms of how I approached thinking and problem solving throughout my career, so we’re very happy to join other alumni in providing opportunities for today’s students.”

Chabraja now serves as non-executive chairman of the board of General Dynamics. Chabraja also held other top-level positions at General Dynamics, which specializes in aerospace, combat systems, marine systems, and information systems and technology.  He was vice chairman of General Dynamics (1996-97), executive vice president (1994-96) and senior vice president and general counsel (1993-94). Before his career at General Dynamics, Chabraja was a litigation partner at the law firm of Jenner & Block for 22 years.

Chabraja has been a consistent supporter of Northwestern’s School of Law. Last year, the law school and the University's Kellogg School of Management received a $3 million gift from General Dynamics Corporation to support a special law and business professorship named for Chabraja.

Stephensen spent a week in Halifax at the Nova Scotia Archives, reading letters of Jacob Bailey, a Congregational minister, who, along with other residents of the area loyal to the British Crown, was driven out of Maine to Canada shortly before the war by groups favoring the Revolution.

“In his letters, Bailey complains about his congregation and the supporters of the Revolution, calling them ‘despicable villains’ and ‘sons of tyranny’ and he particularly didn’t like Benjamin Franklin,” Stephensen said. “It was really interesting, and it’s great, particularly as a undergrad, to have the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member like Professor Breen,” Stephensen said.

Stephensen said she hopes to use her research when she writes her senior honors thesis on loyalists during the Revolutionary War period. A member of Northwestern’s swimming team who is an Academic All-Big Ten honoree, she plans to teach history.

“I’ve always been interested in history and I decided I wanted to teach because it’s a passion of mine. This gave me a great opportunity to do research.”

Other Leopold Fellows have done research in San Francisco and using materials in German, Italian, Russian, Korean and Latin, Breen said.

In addition to undergraduate research, the funding for the Center’s international workshops enables two graduate students annually to convene a workshop on a historical topic pertinent to their research. The gift also helps the Center bring in top faculty and researchers from around the world to lecture at Northwestern.

Another initiative of the Center offers the opportunity for graduate students and faculty to travel to other countries to learn how historians there define research projects. Northwestern doctoral students have conducted research workshops with their peers at the National University of Ireland in Galway, Ludwig-Maximillians-Universitat in Munich, Germany, and Cambridge University in England. Future workshops are planned in collaboration with academic organizations in Italy, Ireland, Brazil, the Czech Republic and Turkey.

“These activities of the Center have energized the history department and helped us recruit better grad students and outstanding faculty,” Breen said. “The gift provides the financial base for the institution now and in the future.”

The Center for Historical Studies also will soon move to a new home. When the renovation of historic Harris Hall is completed next fall, it will include a new terrace on the south side of the building, outside of Harris 108, which is often used for receptions and other events. Beneath it, a garden-level addition will include offices for the Center and a reading/seminar room.
Topics: University