Pair of esteemed professors react to receiving Barkley Endowed Professorships

Published: February 26, 2021
Updated: March 02, 2021
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Charles Barkley—one of the most celebrated and influential athletes to ever wear an Auburn uniform—not only continues to champion Auburn athletics, but also is dedicated to providing big assists to some of his alma mater’s all-star faculty.

In 2010, Barkley, a College of Education major who starred on the men’s basketball team from 1981-84, established the Charles W. Barkley Endowed Professorship to celebrate a commitment to diversity among Auburn faculty. Cheryl Seals, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, and William Powell, a professor and director of choral activities in the Department of Music in the College of Liberal Arts, were selected as the 2020 recipients of the prestigious endowment for their excellence in the classroom and commitment to the university.

After receiving the award, the longtime Auburn professors shared insight into their work, inspiration and motivation, as well as what this endowment means for them.

Tell us about your area of research and the focus of your work.

Powell: My area of research is focused on the performance and interpretation of idiomatic and non-idiomatic African American choral music. Generally, idiomatic African American choral music encompasses spirituals and gospel music; whereas non-idiomatic choral works are those composed in the European concert tradition. As a published arranger, I have arranged African American spirituals and served as a co-editor of a collection of spirituals titled Spirituals for Upper Voices, published by Oxford University Press. As an editor for Gentry Publications with my own choral series, I collaborate with other composers to edit and provide exposure for new works. At the university, I teach a graduate course on African American choral music where we explore the influence of African music upon African American composers and arrangers, as well as American music in general. Many students are surprised to learn that the African American spiritual is considered by many ethnomusicologists as the first true American folk song—the first to originate in America. In addition to several choirs which perform European-influenced concert music, I conduct the Auburn University Gospel Choir which specializes in the performance of gospel music, African songs and spirituals. This is a diverse group of singers of a myriad of races, cultures and rhythms who have interest in experiencing African American sacred song.

Seals: My research is in the area of human-computer interaction, especially advanced learning technologies. I work with different populations to help them improve their user experience. One group that I work with involves language or communication disorders. Some of my work supports accessibility and trying to think of how we can aid linguistic professionals in their introductory training. We also look at software that can help those that have low vision. Most recently, using advanced learning technologies, we've helped different populations, whether it be educators in curriculum and teaching, in communication disorders, or even a couple of faculty members in building science and civil engineering. The advanced learning technologies we’ve created include virtual reality or using a small drone to help us to navigate a 3D space that I've used for some of my K-12 students.

What drew you to a career in higher education and, in particular, to Auburn?

Powell: For me, it was a calling. Music was my passion when I was in high school. I didn't know for sure that I would be teaching at the college level, but by the time I got into college, I knew that academia was where I belonged. I had some really wonderful teachers who inspired me. My temperament connected with how they approached teaching. So, I said, "I want to do that, too." I grew up in Americus, Georgia, so I was very much aware of Auburn University. In fact, my high school choral director, a graduate of Auburn, brought me and my classmates to visit the campus. I wanted to attend Auburn, so I applied and was accepted. However, my parents could not afford the out-of-state tuition. But that early experience made an indelible impression upon me. Prior to becoming a member of the Auburn family, my wife Rosephanye and I were in Little Rock, Arkansas, teaching at Philander Smith College. While on maternity leave with our first child, Rosephanye was reading through The Chronicle of Higher Education. We weren't planning to move because we had just bought a house. When I arrived home, to my amazement, Rosephanye showed me what she had discovered in the Chronicle: two music faculty positions at Auburn University—one for choral, and the other for voice. What are the odds of that? We applied and were hired in 2001.

Seals: When I was in high school, I didn't know what I wanted to do, but being from but being from a small town, Homer, Louisiana, I went to a summer camp at my undergrad institute, Grambling State. From there, everybody in my class was excited about computers and computer science. I went into computer science, and it has been a blast because I got a chance to live all over the country because of computing. And that—the ever-changing nature of computing—is what keeps me excited. A couple of years ago, I was working more in mobile technology, but now I'm working more in augmented and virtual reality. Every three or four years, you almost have to reinvent yourself because the speed of computers doubles almost every year. That was a Moore's Law, the computing speed doubles every couple of years. I was excited about computers. And then with Auburn, I applied here fresh, just coming out of my Ph.D. program. At the time, I didn't know a lot about Auburn, but I did know about Charles Barkley because I'm from Louisiana, and we were big in the SEC with LSU being there. When I found out about Auburn’s computer science department, it was a really good fit for my skills. I saw it as a great place to get started as a new assistant professor and a great place to grow and start your career.

How does having a professorship support you?

Powell: Receiving the Charles Barkley Endowed Professorship affirms my contributions as an African American faculty member. It feels good to have one’s work acknowledged and supported by the university. As I have experienced already, an endowed professorship strengthens one’s credibility amongst one’s peers at the national and international levels. Recently, I have been invited to serve on a board and as a consultant with a reputable organization within my profession. And I believe that being a Charles Barkley Endowed Professor contributed to these appointments. The additional funds allow me to serve as a consultant for high school choirs at no cost to them. Additionally, it provides funds for research materials needed for a book on the African American spiritual, gospel music and anthems I am a co-authoring with my wife.

Seals: Well, this position was a great blessing to me. My students were very excited when I won the award. My family was very excited about me winning the award. My department and college were especially proud of, or really excited about me getting this award. I do a lot of mentoring in K-12 outreach. So, with the Barkley Award, it does add a certain notoriety, a certain cachet. It's a great benefit as a woman in STEM to receive this award. We have had a low number of women faculty [in these areas]. And now we have probably doubled that number since the time that I arrived at Auburn, but we still have our work to do in that area. I'm proud as a woman, as an underrepresented woman for receiving this award. There are very few in the country, probably, oh my goodness, probably less than 200 or 300 African Americans that have a Ph.D. in computer science that are working at academic institutions. We need to work at trying to get more people to the table, because we really need everyone to help shape the future of technology.

When you think about Charles Barkley, what words or characteristics immediately come to mind?

Powell: Bold, intentional, risk-taker. Also, Charles Barkley is an intellectual who is business-minded, strategic and a really fine role model, especially for African Americans. He is an ambassador and a strong supporter of his community and of his alma mater.

Seals: To me, he is charismatic. He is hard-working. He is influential because he not only talked about it, he did it. He was at the top of his field, a very heavyweight contender in the world of basketball, a heavyweight name in the world of sports, in the name of Auburn University. When people think of Auburn, they can also think of Charles Barkley. He has entered into places where we may not have entered into. It's really, really nice to be able to utilize that, to be able to talk about, I am the Charles Barkley Endowed Professor of computer science and software engineering. Because of that, some will give me opportunities that I may not have had.

How do you see those traits in you?

Powell: I aspire to be bolder and to be more of a risk-taker. I care about my community, and I am committed to being the best professor I can be at Auburn University. When I travel, I endeavor to be an ambassador for the university, one who represents the best of Auburn University. And, on campus and off, I aspire to be a role model for African Americans, as well as minorities of other races.

Seals: I think being in this seat, I'm dedicated and hardworking. I'm a hard worker, and I inspire and let my students know that to be successful in the field of computers, you're going to have to put in some hard work. You have to think, ‘What do I need to do to pull together my professional development? What is the industry looking for? What does Auburn University need me to have to get out of here with my degree?’ We really want to make sure that, if we commit to something, we get it done and we have a good work ethic. We handle the things that are put on our plate, and we usually take it on with a smile.

I'm not one to talk about myself, but as a trailblazer, I think that in technology, people don't realize that sometimes we need more people at the table. And I say, diverse minds lead to diverse solutions, more creativity. It is scientifically proven that if we have more diverse minds, we could get more creative solutions. If you have only one group of people making solutions, then we've missed the solution for many others in the population that will be taking advantage of those. I think as a trailblazer, I've had an opportunity to mentor, and I work with students that might not be traditionally seen in STEM. I mentor all students, but I have a high percentage of underrepresented students that have graduated at the Ph.D. level that are out there in industry as industry leaders.

If you could tell Charles Barkley anything, what would you say?

Powell: If I could have an audience with Charles Barkley, the very first thing I would say is, ‘Thank you. Thank you for supporting faculty and students through this endowment.” I would say, “I’m a fan; but I’m not talking about sports. I'm talking about how you generously invest in people. You are really making a difference in lives.” Right now, I am just trying to hold back the tears. I am so very grateful for this honor.

Seals: Mr. Barkley, thank you so much for your support, your kind and generous support of Auburn University. We applaud you. We thank you for giving back, for giving your time, your talents, your funds to Auburn University. You have been a trailblazer. You have always stood for what you believed in, and you stand with Auburn. Thank you. I thank you so much.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.