During 33 years at Wittenberg University, Kent and Mimi Dixon helped to strengthen writing instruction in the English Department and lengthen it across the curriculum.
After Wittenberg’s financial straits left the Dixons’ positions vacant upon their retirement, their son Chris donated $75,000 toward what Wittenberg hopes will grow into a $500,000 endowment to extend the their legacy with the Dixon Professorship.
“It was presented to us as a surprise at our (April retirement) dinner,” said Kent Dixon.
Cynthia Richards, who chairs the English Department, said the initial gift will allow the department to “fill the gap” caused by the Dixons’ retirements by having a writer in residence for each of the next three academic years.
The plan is to attract an emerging figure in a genre of creative writing to work with both beginning and advanced students “and maybe work one-on-one,” Richards said.
Chris Dixon grew up in Springfield while his parents were teaching at Wittenberg and now works with venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz in the Silicon Valley city of Menlo Park, Calif.
He has invested or been involved in developing a wide range of successful technology start-ups, including Pinterest, Kickstarter and stripe. He has sold his own start-ups to likes of Google and eBay.
As their retirement approached, “I knew I wanted to do something to really honor Kent and Mimi’s legacy,” Richards said.
When she approached their son with the idea, he “was very generous and immediately said yes.”
Richards said that in their tenure, the Dixons did a rare thing: “They found a way to wed the creative voice (found in writing) with the scholarly endeavor of (studying) literature.”
“In most places, there’s a faculty divide” between creative writers and other faculty focused on expository writing, Kent Dixon said.
“Often there’s real antagonism toward the creative side,” Mimi Dixon added.
She said the benefits of creative and critical thinking are present in their son, who is both “a creative thinker and a terrific writer. And that’s a field you wouldn’t expect it in.”
Her husband added that at English Department career days, “lawyer after lawyer says they’ve been a year ahead at law school” because of their writing skills.
Aimee Maruyama, Director of Advancement, Corporate and Foundation Relations, said that’s the reason the university is embracing the effort by trying to raise $500,000 to support the program on a continuing basis.
“I keep seeing these studies from career analysts that, across fields, people hiring in the corporate sector are not seeing critical thinkers and people who have writing (and other communication) skills.”
“It doesn’t matter what our students do, they’re going to need to write.”
In addition, while attending the Dixons’ retirement ceremony, “I really saw the profound effect they had on the writing program and the students who came back to honor them,” evidence of the importance of hands on teaching in the process.
Mimi Dixon called the writing emphasis “something that’s unique about Wittenberg and about this four year residential liberal arts education, which is being threatened. What people don’t realize is that it takes four years to develop these skills.”
Richards said that for the three-year period Chris Dixon has underwritten, the Department will be looking for essayists, screenwriters, graphic novelists and others as candidates for writer-in-residence.