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From the Beginning

Founding Professors Peter Schwab and Lee Ehrman Retire

Last spring, two founding professors ended their remarkable Purchase careers during a semester like no other. Professor of Biology Lee Ehrman and Professor of Political Science Peter Schwab both retired during a pandemic and now hold Professor Emeriti designations.

Each has instructed and inspired generations of Purchase students. Countless alumni point to their experiences with these professors as profound and life-changing.

We salute their dedication to research and academia, to Purchase College, and to nearly 50 years of graduating classes they’ve witnessed cross the stage to receive diplomas. We’re endlessly grateful they chose to spend the bulk of their stellar careers here sharing their vast knowledge and expertise. Purchase will not be the same without them.

The Very First Professor Hired

“Muddy.” That’s how Distinguished Professor Lee Ehrman wryly responded to the question, “What was it like on campus when you first started?” Her first office at Purchase was a trailer where the building that houses the Stood and Children’s Center currently stands. “For air conditioning, we would climb on the roof and squirt hoses,” and for an intercom, “We would step into the hall and scream.”

Lee Ehrman, Professor Emeritus of Biology The year was 1970. An eminent geneticist, Ehrman was the very first professor appointed to teach at Purchase College. She came from Rockefeller University, where she was an associate professor who’d been awarded a National Institutes of Health career fellowship. “Purchase got me cheap,” she says, “because I brought even my own fringe benefits with me.”

Lee Ehrman from The Load Lee Ehrman from The LoadWhat she really brought to Purchase was expertise in genetics and behavior that was pioneering, even more notably as one of few women in the field. And she also brought her Drosophila, the genus of “beautiful little iridescent flies” whose genetics she studies. The basement wine cellar of the main heritage building, now Admissions, was home to her first lab. “It had a controlled temperature of 59 degrees and it was also nice and moist. They were quite happy there.” The distant offspring of those flies continue to live in her lab today. “I have derivative flies that came with me to Purchase.”

The flies have a two-week life span and need constant attention to prevent them from mating in order for Ehrman to control the crosses. “Of course, I do everything but breastfeed them. I talk to them and if I bump a culture I say ‘excuse me.’ I’m eccentric, a little crazy. Most scientists are, you know.” She’s even had two species named after her and named two species herself.

The Firsts

Her career holds many firsts. Not only the first professor at Purchase, she would have been in the first graduating class of Brandeis University, but a family crisis forced her to attend college closer to home. She graduated from Queens College with a BS in 1956 and then earned an MS and a PhD in genetics from Columbia University in 1957 and 1959 respectively. While at Columbia, she studied with and worked in the lab of Theodosius Dobzhansky, the pioneering geneticist and evolutionary biologist. Ehrman was his only female PhD student.

In 1995, Ehrman was the first woman and the first biologist bestowed a distinguished professor rank by SUNY (which first conferred this rank in 1964.) She earned the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1976.

One of her first students, Bertha Inocencio Green ’74, became her lab technician and has remained with her for the last 49 years. Both of Ehrman’s daughters and sons-in-law all attended Purchase. And she’s the first professor whose grandson has graduated from Purchase. “He was summa,” she adds proudly.

Body of Work

Ehrman is the author of several books, including The Genetics of Behavior (1976), Behavior Genetics and Evolution (1981) (its third edition was published in March 2021 including three non-English translations), and Genetics, Environment, and Behavior (1972), as well as hundreds of scholarly papers and critical reviews published in important scientific journals. By 2005, she published more than 500 articles. In 2019, she published her magnum opus in Behavior Genetics online and in print, which has been retained in the journal’s editorial office.

She claims the key to success and longevity in the bench sciences is “stamina, physical health, and the capacity to stick with it.”

“It is impossible to imagine Purchase without Lee,” says Linda Bastone, associate professor of psychology. “She has been such an integral part of the college since its inception. She has served as a mentor and role model to so many alumni who have gone on to their own highly successful careers in the sciences, medicine, and other areas. We are so grateful to Lee and will miss her terribly.”

And what will Ehrman miss most about Purchase? “Everything. I really have no life other than Purchase. I know a little genetics, that’s all,” she says. “I may complain, but I wouldn’t abandson it for the world.”

A Gifted and Influential Teacher

Professor of Political Science Peter Schwab arrived at Purchase in 1971. Following short teaching stints at Adelphi University and SUNY’s Cooperative College Center in Mount Vernon, he found the idea of a new college exciting and decided to join the faculty, one of the first 15 professors hired. Fifty years later, he’s retiring with an impressive body of work and generations of students influenced by his teaching.

Professor of Political Science Peter Schwab Schwab earned a BA in History from Fairleigh Dickinson University and an MA/PhD in political science from The New School for Social Research. The New York City native joined the first group in the Peace Corps headed for Liberia. He received a Fulbright Hays Award in 1967 to conduct research in Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, and Ethiopia; he wrote his PhD on the latter’s politics. Over the years, he also did research in Gambia, Israel, and Cuba.

His experiences in Africa informed his teaching. “I love teaching the Africa course, because I spent years in Africa; I lived in Liberia for two years. I did research in Gambia and Senegal; I did my PhD in Ethiopian politics. So I was really partial to teaching about African politics.”

The Early Years

He remembers the early years here fondly. The faculty had offices and the first 100 students all took classes in the same building, the heritage estate that is now the Admissions Office. He shared an office with Professor Emerita Esther Newton, the first anthropologist hired. And Purchase’s first president, Abbott Kaplan, would buy the faculty lunch every day. Schwab misses the sense of community among faculty members across disciplines cultivated by the simple act of eating lunch together.

Peter Schwab from The Load Peter Schwab from The LoadAnd he remembers the students, the first of whom were transfers. “The students were great. They were smart, many of them had dropped out, it was a college that really attracted people that wanted to start again,” he says.

One of those students was the renowned cinematographer Abel Ferrara ’74. Schwab was his senior project advisor. “His senior project was the politics of the robbery of a gas station. And who would have ever guessed that he would be one of the major cinematographers today.”

Another student on whom Schwab had a profound impact was the 2020 recipient of the President’s Award for Distinguished Alumni, Adotei Akwei ’84 (political science and economics). He’s spent his entire 30-plus year career working on global human rights for organizations such as Care USA and Amnesty International USA. It was a film on the Vietnam War in one of Schwab’s classes that seized his attention and defined his career path.

In courses such as US Foreign Policy Since 1945 and the Literature of Political Violence, Schwab has influenced generations of students who praise him for his enthusiasm and teaching. He’s earned a reputation as being tough, which stems mainly from his incredibly high standards for taking one’s education seriously—reading, taking part in class discussions, and writing well. And he’s a stickler for punctuality. His low-tech approach nevertheless imparts knowledge and valuable skills.

Considerable Contributions

Professor Schwab has collectively written, co-written, or edited 14 books. The book he co-wrote with Adamantia Pollis, Human Rights: Cultural and Ideological Perspectives (1979), was one of three selected by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1986 for distribution to its information centers as a “primary reference work” on human rights. He’s also written dozens of articles and book reviews.

He’s held many leadership roles, including serving as president of the Purchase Chapter of United University Professions union from 1986 to 1990 and also as director of Purchase’s study abroad program in Burgos, Spain for several summers in the 2000s. And he’s been chair of the political science department several times since arriving here, most recently from 2013 to 2020.

He earned the SUNY Chancellor’s Award in Recognition of Exemplary Research and Scholarship in 2005, and the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2015. It’s the teaching he finds incredibly rewarding. “I love teaching. I think teaching is one of the most honorable professions there are,” he says. “For me, it really gave me a sense of who I was, and what I was capable of. And I’ve had a wonderful time teaching here. It has given me a life. I’ve given a lot to this place, but it’s given me a life, too. I know that and I understand that.”

Bastone commends his teaching. “Peter has had an enviable career as a researcher and writer. It is his teaching, though, and its enormous impact on the lives of so many students, that is his greatest contribution of all,” she says. “Alumni, some from many years ago, contact Peter regularly just to check in and let him know just how much his teaching and mentoring mattered to them.”

While he won’t miss commuting from Manhattan, he’ll miss being here. “Purchase gave me a wonderful career. It allowed me to do and teach what I wanted to teach. It gave me grants and allowed me to do research abroad. It allowed me to develop my own intellectual abilities,” he says. “I won’t deny that I’ll miss it.”

Purchase has not had a chance to honor Ehrman and Schwab in person as they so deserve, but will when it’s safe to do so.

Other Faculty Who Retired in 2020

Allyson Bellink, Associate Professor Emerita of Music

Allyson Bellink’s music is heard by 15 million viewers daily on the CBS and NBC-TV Networks. One of the predominant composers in television today, she is an Emmy® Award winner and three-time Emmy® Award nominee. Her TV credits include original music for: Guiding Light, As the World Turns, the NBA Playoffs, the NCAA Basketball Tournament (CBS-TV Network), Another World (NBC TV-Network), ABC’s Monday Night Football, the Winter Olympics, the Indianapolis 500, and NCAA College Football (ABC-TV Network) as well as the theme for the Super Bowl.

Dominic Donato, Assistant Professor Emeritus of Music

Dominic Donato, DMA enjoys being a percussion soloist, chamber musician, composer, and teacher. He has performed throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia as a soloist and member of the Talujon Percussion Group, DoublePlay Percussion Duo, and the Newband/Harry Partch Ensemble.