College Park Scholars mourns Ira Berlin, who died June 5, 2018, in Washington. Berlin was a celebrated historian and scholar on slavery who, as dean for undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland, helped found College Park Scholars in 1993. The intent was to combine the best of academic and student affairs into a singular living–learning program for high-achieving students.
“Because of his scholarship and contributions to the University of Maryland, Ira in many ways belongs to the entire campus. But he had a special place in Scholars,” says Marilee Lindemann, Scholars executive director. “He had a vision for what student learning could, and should, be in higher education and took the lead in establishing what has become a vibrant community and program.”
Nancy Shapiro was College Park Scholars’ first executive director and worked closely with Berlin in the program’s early days. “There never would have been a College Park Scholars without Ira,” she says. “He had the vision; he was the problem-solver. He took the risks and assumed the responsibility, and he added the pinch of ‘magic dust’ to make Scholars the wonderful program it is today. I still remember when Ira asked me to be the director of this new project. I asked what it was, and he told me: ‘It’s the best job you’ll ever have.’ Sure enough, it was—largely because of his contributions.”
Says William Cohen, associate provost and dean for undergraduate studies, “Ira Berlin had a vital role in shaping undergraduate education on the campus for generations of students. College Park Scholars has flourished thanks to the generous spirit of collaboration that Ira fostered in all his work and thanks to the support that he and his wife Martha have given it over many years.”
In addition to authoring numerous books on slavery, the Civil War and emancipation, Berlin founded the Freedmen and Southern Society Project. He also served as dean for both undergraduate studies and the College of Arts and Humanities, among many other roles.
“Ira was unfailing in his commitment to undergraduate students,” says Donna B. Hamilton, professor emerita and former associate provost and dean for undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland. “His broad and deep influence on behalf of students resulted not only from the energy he poured into the cause, but from the extraordinary respect in which he was held throughout the university. One could have no greater champion than Ira Berlin.”
That was certainly the case for College Park Scholars, which benefited from Berlin’s involvement long after the program’s founding. Berlin regularly provided behind-the-scenes guidance and support to program staff. He and his wife, Martha, also contributed financially to Scholars. The Martha and Ira Berlin Legacy Fund Scholarship, for example, continues to provide funding to those Scholars students interested in expanding upon their practicum experience by delving further into research, community service, internships or study abroad. The Ira Berlin Writing Award meanwhile honors a Scholars student who has demonstrated excellence in academic writing.
Lindemann concludes: “Ira Berlin’s career is proof that, at its best, the academic life is a life of care in action. His work as a scholar gave us a richer, deeper, more accurate American history. His leadership on our campus made it a better, more inclusive institution. Part of his legacy will always live in Scholars. That gladdens my heart, even as I grapple with the sorrow of losing a friend.”