$1.5 million gift honors professor, mentor

Faculty are the heart of the student experience at Cornell College, and a Class of 1959 alumnus and his wife acknowledged this with a $1.5 million gift honoring the professor who mentored him.

Dr. Ralph E. “Chris” Christoffersen and his wife, Barbara.

Ralph E. “Chris” Christoffersen ’59, of Boulder, Colo., and his wife, Barbara,  pledged the gift to create an endowed professorship in chemistry that honors William Deskin, professor emeritus of chemistry, and Ruth, his wife of more than 60 years.

Deskin, who taught at Cornell College from 1956 to 1989, was known as a mentor and a promoter of student research. The fund will pay for the salary and faculty development for one chemistry professor.

Cornell College President Jonathan Brand said the gift both honors that tradition and makes sure future students at Cornell have the same experiences.

“The faculty are the most important aspect of the college experience for the students,” he said, “and this gift honors a professor and his wife who were very important to Chris as a student, while ensuring that Cornell students have access to quality, dedicated faculty. It’s the past, present and future brought together.”

The Christoffersens gave the gift in honor of the professor who mentored him and even made a room for him in his home so Christoffersen

Ruth Deskin and William Deskin, professor emeritus of chemistry

could stay on campus to conduct research as a student.

Christoffersen went on to Indiana University, where he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry, and had a distinguished career in academia and the pharmaceutical industry. He’s served as president of Colorado State University, senior vice president of research at SmithKline Beecham and vice president of discovery research at The Upjohn Company. He is currently a general partner at Morgenthaler Ventures, a venture capital firm, where he heads the life science team.

“Bill Deskin played a very important role in my early days in chemistry through his excellent teaching, his pursuit of excellence, his willingness to introduce me to research that resulted in my first peer-reviewed publication, and the genuine friendship that Barbara and I have had with both Bill and Ruth over the years,” Christoffersen said. “It is a great pleasure for Barbara and me to be able to honor Bill’s terrific contributions as a Cornell faculty member.”

Cindy Strong, who will hold the William Deskin Endowed Chair in Chemistry.

Deskin said Christoffersen was the first student who started doing research under his tutelage, and the pair have remained in contact for more than 50 years. Deskin and his wife, Ruth, let Christoffersen stay in their unfinished attic—the only place they had extra room—so he could work on research when classes weren’t in session.

That dedication to research is something Deskin tried to encourage during his tenure at Cornell.

“I always tried to have problems students could work on, so they could do some experimentation,” he said. “They were problems that weren’t in the literature, and it always seemed to encourage students that no one else had published about a problem.”

Cynthia Strong, who has taught in the chemistry department since 1989, will hold the William Deskin Endowed Chair in Chemistry.

Strong said the name of the professorship was appropriate, given Deskin’s role in sponsoring faculty-student research, which remains a strength of the chemistry department.

“That research helps students and it helps me participate in and contribute to my field,” she said.

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