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Charles F. O'brien Of Potsdam Named Clarkson University Professor Emeritus
[A photograph of Charles O'Brien for newspaper use is available at http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/obrien.jpg]
Potsdam, N.Y. – When asked what it's like to be a Liberal Arts scholar at what has always been considered "an engineering school," Clarkson Professor Charles Francis O'Brien likes to tell the story of one of his students who seemed to be enthusiastic about the subject matter but falling behind in her work.
Such has been the challenge of a Civil War historian and expert on U.S.-Canadian relations at a university which has long been known for producing world-class scientists and engineers.
The longtime Liberal Arts professor will be recognized as Professor Emeritus by the Board of Trustees at Clarkson University during Commencement exercises on Sunday for 30 years of service to the University and for his expertise in U.S.-Canadian studies, Quebec history and Civil War history, and innovative use of computers in the classroom.
But the veteran professor has the perfect response for those who might diminish the importance of liberal arts on the road to becoming the next generation of electrical and mechanical engineers. Whatever these students are studying at the given moment, the technology and techniques being learned today in any of the University's most state-of-the-art laboratories, Professor O'Brien noted, will probably be as useful as a slide rule is today 20 or 30 years from now.
But, O'Brien noted with pride, "Shakespeare will always be Shakespeare."
The retiring professor lauded what he called President Denny Brown's "clear vision" of the importance of giving Clarkson graduates a well-rounded foundation for the future. "Getting a degree from any engineering school will get you that first job," O'Brien noted. "But getting that second job and subsequent jobs in the future will be based on a wider range of ability."
As chairman of Clarkson's Department of Social Sciences from 1976 to 1981, Professor O'Brien played a formative role in shaping today's intellectually vigorous School of Liberal Arts by attracting and hiring core faculty members who have elevated the institution's scholarly reputation while maintaining its focus on teaching.
Regarded as a wise and trusted mentor for many students over the years, O'Brien said he has noted something special in the students he has taught. While many of his students come to him poorly prepared, almost all of them are enthusiastic and willing to work. "Whatever you want to say about Clarkson, there is a very strong work ethic here. Almost everybody works very hard, which isn't always the case in our institutions of higher education today."
O'Brien said he is speaking from experience, noting that a couple of his children returned to Clarkson to complete their education after finding the atmosphere at other universities less than fully rewarding.
Ironically, the longtime Liberal Arts professor said the most importance advance in his field of study has come via a scientific device known as a computer and the marvel that is cyberspace and the Internet.
The advance of computer technology and the development of CD-ROM storage and Internet access has opened a whole new world to Clarkson students studying the Civil War or Quebec history. Now access to historic documents or newspapers from the 1860s are simply a mouse click away, O'Brien noted.
Along with the development of Clarkson's facilities and its move to "the Hill" over the years, O'Brien has called the impact of technology the most remarkable change of his long tenure at the University.
O'Brien is generally credited as one of the first professors to embrace the innovative use of computer technology to open virtual windows to present day issues and Civil War history.
The former member of the St. Lawrence County Environmental Management Council noted he also plans to enjoy the view from his porch at his Washington Street home with his wife, Emily, and "enjoy the good life in the North Country because there are few places as pleasant between May 1 and Oct. 1."