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April 24, 2022

Simmons Chivukula Award for Academic Leadership

Victor J. DiRita

Rudolph Hugh Professor and Chair
Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics
College of Natural Science

Victor J. DiRita, Rudolph Hugh Professor and Chair in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, exhibits extensive leadership qualities, serving his department and the college both seriously and with good humor. He supports everyone without exception—staff, undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and faculty — while emphasizing and encouraging continuous learning and improvement throughout the department.

During a department retreat, DiRita stressed his commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). True to form, he has since followed through on this commitment at faculty meetings, inviting DEI leaders to make presentations; within departmental committees, particularly search committees; and at the individual level by requiring faculty to address their DEI efforts in annual reports. He has also worked at the college level to expand diversity hiring and graduate student recruitment while continuing to assess the college’s and the department’s working environments.

Numerous examples illustrate how DiRita treats others with tact, dignity, respect, and compassion. He has an open door policy that welcomes everyone and ensures that all faculty, staff, postdocs, and students know they are equally important. Both faculty and staff note that DiRita not only listens to individual concerns—but hears them, understanding andempathizing with faculty and staff from their perspectives, rather than simply from his own view.

His compassion for individuals has been particularly evident during the COVID-19 period and with the challenges it has incurred. He has carefully considered and empathized with faculty and staff, especially those with young children who have been negatively affected by the pandemic.

DiRita strives to treat all faculty, whether primarily research or primarily teaching, as equals. When he realized that the annual review form had been developed based on standards for research faculty and therefore subjected teaching faculty to second-class status, he worked with the faculty advisory committee to develop a second annual review form. Its implementation has been highly successful in recognizing and rewarding the value of departmental teaching faculty.

At the graduate student level, DiRita demonstrates his respect to individuals by distributing a department-wide email just prior to a student’s dissertation defense that summarizes their accomplishments and future plans. This effort has greatly increased attendance at dissertation defenses, enhancing students’ confidence.

To help empower the success and development of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, Dr. DiRita initiated Work-in-Progress Seminars WiPS, a weekly program of two 25-minute presentations by graduate students or postdocs. These seminars, which faculty are expected to attend, help young researchers enhance their proficiency in oral presentation while ensuring broad engagement in trainee support. Two faculty members even provide written and oral feedback to each presenter to ensure the presentations allow for teaching and mentoring.

DiRita also empowers the departmental staff and faculty, encouraging the departmental awards committee to nominate deserving staff and faculty for university and extramural awards. During his tenure, multiple faculty have been inducted into the American Academy of Microbiology, won awards from the American Society for Microbiology, and been recognized by other prestigious external and University-wide awards, including MSU’s William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award and the distinction of “Fellow” by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

DiRita is well known and appreciated for his dependability and attention to detail. The faculty advisory committee, for example, is always confident that the chair’s components of the tenure and promotion documents are complete and that the required external evaluation letters have been acquired. 

DiRita knows how important these documents are to faculty who are up for promotion and gives priority to ensuring that his responsibilities to the process are fulfilled, demonstrating not only his commitment to his position but also his compassion and concern for the faculty who rely on him in their careers.

Knowing that a department’s mood is influenced from the top down, DiRita is always positive, quick to praise others and highlight their successes. His attitude helps faculty members feel more affirmative, which then encourages staff and students.

Although adept at providing encouragement to others and maximizing their success, DiRita does not boast of his own achievements. Instead, he nurtures interactions and collaborations to benefit the individuals involved and the department.

In summary, DiRita exhibits the leadership qualities desired by everyone in his department. For his dedication to bringing forth the best from his faculty and students, treating staff with the utmost respect, and transformative leadership in DEI and educational leadership, Victor J. DiRita is most deserving of the Simmons Chivukula Award for Academic Leadership.

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By: Marguerite Halversen

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