April 26, 2017–The University of Houston has bestowed its highest faculty honor on a professor who was described by his nominator as “world renowned for his research in learning disabilities and his relentless efforts to harness the power of science to improve our understanding of human cognition.”
With such accolades, it should come as no surprise that Jack M. Fletcher, Hugh Roy and Lilly Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair, is this year’s recipient of the Esther Farfel Award. The award carries a $10,000 cash prize.
Fletcher, though, was more than a little surprised when Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Paula Myrick Short gave him the good news.
“I assumed the provost was calling me because of some departmental problem, which I thought at the time must be really serious if she was calling,” recalled Fletcher, who also serves as chair of the psychology department and interim associate vice president for research administration.
“When she congratulated me, I was speechless because of my expectation and because I have many colleagues deserving of recognition,” Fletcher said.
Needless to say, Fletcher was thrilled and so were his wife and two children, one of whom graduated from UH with a degree in psychology, when he shared the news with them.
“The award is a testament to the opportunities afforded me by the university and the many colleagues at UH and in the community with whom I have collaborated,” Fletcher said. “UH has always been an open and entrepreneurial environment for research, and has given me access to multiple kinds of expertise for addressing complex problems. This honor is reflective of the many collaborations I have engaged in over the years.”
Fletcher joins a list of such distinguished professors as George Fox, David Ashley White, Dmitri Litvinov, Fredell Lack, Sidney Berger and Cynthia Macdonald honored for excellence in teaching, research and service.
And similar to previous Farfel Award recipients, Fletcher has amassed a phenomenal record of scholarship and research which includes publishing more than 400 peer-reviewed manuscripts. Six of his peer-reviewed articles have been cited more than 900 times. Two of his papers have been cited more than 1,800 and more 1,400 times, respectively. Additionally, he has written more than 100 chapters in edited volumes and three books.
Fletcher’s success in obtaining research funding is just as remarkable. He has directed or collaborated on more than $125 million in funded research. Funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Fletcher has managed projects that have created national interdisciplinary centers involving neurodevelopmental disorders, including learning disabilities, spina bifida and math disabilities. One of those centers, the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities at UH, is in its 10th year of funding.
“Jack has reshaped the landscape research on children and adults with disabilities through his amazing productivity, his unwavering commitment to scientific principle at his unparalleled willingness to collaborate with a mentor other researchers from beginning students to seasoned scholars,” his nominator said.
Yet Fletcher’s commitment to his profession and the university goes well beyond these centers. He was and continues to be a member of dozens of organizations. He has served as president of the International Neuropsychological Society, the premier professional organization for scientists and clinicians in neuropsychology. He also has participated on special committees for the National Research Council, the RAND Commission on Reading Comprehension and the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education.
Fletcher’s career at UH began in 1979, when he received a joint appointment as a clinical assistant professor in psychology on campus and as a staff psychologist at the Texas Research Institute of Mental Sciences at the Texas Medical Center.
Fletcher’s reason for accepting the position at UH was simple: He “was impressed by the possibility of promoting research collaborations across the community.”
In 1985, Fletcher became an associate professor at UH and receive tenure in 1988. Four years later, he left his full-time position at UH but continued to teach and collaborate on research as a clinical professor. In 2006, Fletcher returned to the faculty as a distinguished university professor.
“UH has always been an open and entrepreneurial environment that in many ways parallels the city,” Fletcher said. “If a person has ideas, he or she can be pursued them with support across multiple institutions in the city, state and nation with UH as a base.”
Fletcher’s passion for psychology took shape during his undergraduate years at Davidson College.
“I was interested in language and how people form knowledge. I initially thought it could be studied in history and philosophy, but began to realize that these were forms of behavior to which the scientific method could be applied,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher would graduate with a Ph.D. in in clinical psychology from the University of Florida in 1978. His early interest in language led him to reading, “which is the major manifestation of learning disabilities,” he explained.
“I began by looking at relations of language and reading, including dyslexia, but became increasingly interested in how to apply the science to practical issues affecting children with learning disabilities—assessment, identification, treatment, the underlying neurobiology and policy,” Fletcher said. “When I started, the scientific basis for understanding and treating learning disabilities was weak. Now I think it is very solid. The critical issues are how to apply what we know in schools.”
Fletcher, according to his supporters, was instrumental in bridging the gap between the research and practical application.
“His work has yielded major policy implications ranging from the need to step away from insistence on IQ achievement discrepancy to identify learning disorders, to advocacy for the kind of interventions needed to remediate learning problems, and to the reconsideration of capital punishment related to individuals with intellectual disabilities,” one researcher noted.
Clearly, Fletcher is one of the most distinguished researchers in his field, garnering international and national recognition. He is the recipient of the 2006 International Reading Association Albert J. Harris Award and the 2003 International Dyslexia Association Samuel Torrey Orton Award, the organization’s highest honor.
Yet when asked by his family why he was selected to receive the Farfel Award, Fletcher told them, “I am mystified.”
Fletcher added, “I was pleased that my colleagues were willing to go to the trouble to nominate me. I was even more pleased when they told me not only that I was nominated, but they managed to find people to write letters of support. Some of them had to be written by colleagues and current and former students, so that was especially positive.”
Short presented Fletcher with the Farfel Award at a ceremony, where other faculty members were honored for excellence in teaching, research, scholarship and mentoring.
In his acceptance remarks, Fletcher noted the opportunities to collaborate with outstanding women scientists were extremely valuable to his career, and, in conclusion, emphasized the importance of diversity across disciplines and in gender, race, class and gender to science.
By Francine Parker