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Beloved Professor Earns Distinguished Service Award

From his office in Gerhart House to the provost's office in Old Main to classrooms around the Franklin & Marshall campus, the spirit of Michael Billig looms large.

"He was dedicated to his colleagues, devoted to his family, a phenomenal teacher, a memorable lecturer, and a colleague who was deeply invested in knowing the folks around him and supporting the folks around him," said Scott Smith, associate professor and chair of anthropology.

Billig, a beloved professor of anthropology who died in February after a courageous struggle with cancer, lives on in the hearts and minds of students, faculty and alumni for his dedication to the College and its community. His commitment to faculty governance and enhancing the student experience are only a couple of the reasons he earned F&M's Faculty Distinguished Service Award, presented at Commencement in May.

"Michael Billig embodied the spirit of distinguished service in every way," his award citation reads. "He took mentorship seriously, and it showed in the tremendous contribution he made to the College over his lifetime. His service was quite simply his most remarkable corpus of work."

Billig earned his doctorate at Harvard University after completing his undergraduate work and master's degree at Columbia University. He joined the F&M faculty in 1986 and immediately displayed his dedication to leadership by serving on numerous shared governance and program committees. He served several terms as chair of the Department of Anthropology, was a chair of Asian studies, and also was a member of the Committee on Campus Life, the Student Conduct Committee, the Foundations Oversight Group, and the Summer Working Group on Governance and Handbook Reform.

His colleagues also selected him for positions on the Professional Standards Committee, the Teaching Evaluation Taskforce and a Presidential Search Committee. In 2011, he joined the Office of the Provost as associate dean of the College, where he was instrumental in establishing and shaping the Office of College Grants. He later became chair of Faculty Council, pioneering the re-engineering of faculty evaluation and the formalization of the Teaching Professor position.

"Michael is uniquely deserving of this award because of his absolute devotion to this community and his dedication to supporting the members of this community in any way that he really could," Smith said. "He thought always about the folks around him before he thought about himself."

His mentorship of students is perhaps what Billig enjoyed the most. Students remember his ability to take historical intellectual debates and bring them to life; many alumni can quote things he said in his lectures years after they leave F&M.

"He gave me a confidence in myself that I didn't know I had," one alumna said. "He saw something in me, in all of us, and patiently helped us dig, explore, and uncover that piece unique to us all and taught us how to shine it, polish it, and show it to the world."

He did all of it with an indomitable spirit, determined to educate, mentor and serve students and colleagues even as he fought his greatest battle.

"His spirit, in a lot of ways, was tied to his uncontrollable will to live and love life," Smith said. "He loved life in part because of how hard he fought to have it. And he certainly didn't take it for granted. His loss will continue to be felt for many years."


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