UB professors pledge $1 million bequest to support creative arts students

Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian in their book-filled home.

Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson are honoring their mothers by naming two awards after them that will support students of the creative and performing arts at UB. Photo: Douglas Levere

Release Date: March 4, 2016 This content is archived.

“They are both true champions of learning and higher education whose giving sets a high standard and shining example to others. ”
UB President Satish K. Tripathi

BUFFALO, N.Y. – University at Buffalo faculty members Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson are widely known for having multifaceted careers. They recently added a new role to their lengthy résumés: that of philanthropists. The pair has pledged a $1 million bequest commitment to support students of creative and performing arts at UB.

Once realized, the pledge will create a scholarship and a fellowship fund for undergraduate and graduate students in the creative arts. The pledge is made in support of the Creative Arts Initiative (CAI), a new UB program that brings world-class creative and performing artists to the university for on-campus residencies. Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture, is co-director of CAI with SUNY Distinguished Professor David Felder, Birge-Cary Professor of Music.

Anyone who knows Christian and Jackson knows they can’t be summed up in a single sentence. Their distinguished careers, acclaimed publications, creative art works and decades of accomplishments defy one-line descriptions, brief bios or abbreviated about-the-author entries.

Jackson, who began teaching at UB in 1967, met Christian when she joined him in the UB English department in 1970. They married soon after, establishing one of the most robust literary, artistic and enduring partnerships on the planet.

Christian, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, is also a poet and author who, while still in college, taught catechism to young violent offenders in prison. She has published extensively on issues of violence. She co-wrote several books with Jackson, and with him produced and directed the documentary “Death Row,” which the late French President Francois Mitterand used during his 1980s campaign to end the death penalty in France. Christian also is a religious literature scholar who was once a member of a religious order. She’s known for her courses on the Bible as literature; heaven, hell and judgment; and mythology.

In addition to professor, Jackson holds many titles: acclaimed folklorist, ethnographer, documentary photographer and filmmaker, and author or editor of more than 30 books in the fields of folklore, sociology and photography. And he’s a Grammy nominee for “Wake Up Dead Man,” a CD of black convicts’ work songs, which accompanied his book by the same name. The French government named Jackson chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters, and chevalier in the National Order of Merit. Jackson also has served as president of the American Folklore Society, editor of the Journal of American Folklore and chairman of the board of trustees of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.

In Western New York, the couple is perhaps best known as the creators and longtime hosts of the Buffalo Film Seminars, which began in 2000 and have been held each semester for the past 16 years.

Through their pledged gift, the couple will honor their mothers by naming the two awards for them: the Julia Jackson Scholarship in the Creative and Performing Arts, and the Ruth Christian Graduate Fellowship in the Arts.

President Satish K. Tripathi expressed thanks to the pair for offering such significant support to the creative arts at the university.

“The Julia Jackson Scholarship in the Creative and Performing Arts and the Ruth Christian Graduate Fellowship in the Arts will have a deeply meaningful and lasting impact on our campus while serving as heartfelt commemorations of their respective mothers,” Tripathi says. “I applaud their abiding commitment to helping UB raise the bar, not only in the creative arts arena but campus-wide. They are both true champions of learning and higher education whose giving sets a high standard and shining example to others.”

The professors recently talked about why they named their awards for their mothers.

Jackson’s mother, who was born in Easton, Pa., the daughter of immigrants “from Pinsk or Minsk in Belarus,” he says, was one of 13 children. She couldn’t afford to attend college, but made sure her own children knew the importance of reading, writing and music.

“She wrote poetry and adored literature and music,” Jackson says. “When I was young, she took me to the library every Saturday, and there were piano and music lessons the family could ill-afford but which we had because she thought music was necessary. She delighted in every one of my books. I doubt my career would have taken the trajectory it did had it not been for her encouragement and support, starting in my early childhood.”

Christian says her mother, Ruth Curran, also was born into a large family in West Bloomfield, just south of Rochester, “the third youngest of seven girls and five boys,” whose mother died when Ruth was 12.

“Her sisters sent her and her younger sister to boarding school for high school and college — St. Joseph's in Emmitsburg, Md., the oldest Catholic college for women in the country,” Christian says. “She taught middle school until she married Anthony James Christian and had me and three sons. Her life was family and church. She happily resumed teaching after my youngest brother went to college. She was a Latin major and loved learning and the arts and young people. She disciplined by liveliness and humor, a super teacher and person.”

The couple also talked about what they hope the scholarship and fellowship grants will provide for UB undergraduate and graduate students in the creative and performing arts.

“We want very much to stoke the artistic climate at UB. It was a huge factor in drawing us to the university and it’s always needing support,” Christian says.

Jackson agrees. “There hasn’t been much money at UB in the arts in recent years: not much for visiting creative artists, not much in dedicated scholarship and fellowship support for students in those fields. This provides some of the latter. Most of our students work, some at two and even three jobs. They need the help.”

In fact, the couple only agreed to allow UB to publicize their commitment in order to spur others’ generosity.

“It is our hope that our gift will encourage other people to make similar gifts to the university,” Jackson says.

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