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Florence Margai, associate dean of Harpur College of Arts and Sciences and professor of geography, died suddenly Thursday, Jan. 8. Her contributions to Binghamton University will have a lasting impact on the campus.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Florence Margai made Binghamton University a better place
January 15, 2015Tweet
When Florence Margai, 52, associate dean of Harpur College of Arts and Sciences and professor of geography, died suddenly Thursday, Jan. 8, it was shock and loss to the entire campus community.
“She touched so many,” said John Frazier, distinguished service professor of geography. “I met her when she was a PhD student when I gave an invited lecture about race and ethnicity and she told me years later that my talk had inspired her to work on racial inequalities, so we had a connection from the very beginning. We co-papered articles and two books together, co-chaired the department together and spent a great deal of time working together.
“The best way to describe her is she could be anything she wanted to be,” Frazier added. “A great teacher, administrator, first-rate researcher and also a great human being, and I can see from the many messages we’ve received that she was a role model for so many people. Her reach was global and yet she had the same kind of impact locally from the highest level of administration down to the students. We are all devastated.”
Norah Henry, professor and chair of the Department of Geography, had known Margai for a very long time. In fact, though they were not graduate students at the same time, Margai and Henry, along with Frazier and Eugene Tettey-Fio, all shared the same advisor when they were graduate students. “I first came to know Florence from my association with our joint advisor,” Henry said. After Margai was recruited to Hunter College, Henry set her sights on bringing her to Binghamton. “It took about 10 minutes and she said, ‘Sure, I’ll come,’’ Henry said.
Margai had earned her bachelor’s degree in geography from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, and her master’s degree and PhD in geography from Kent State University. During her time at Binghamton, she rose to the rank of full professor, served as co-chair and chair of the Department of Geography, and served as associate dean of the Graduate School from 2011 until 2013, when she assumed her duties as associate dean for research and graduate studies in Harpur College. She had also been serving as interim director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies.
Her research focused on the use of geospatial technologies to map and assess environmental hazards and negative health outcomes, particularly within vulnerable communities, for disease intervention and health promotional campaigns, sustainability and capacity development initiatives. Specific research activities included food insecurity and childhood health outcomes, malaria morbidity and treatment seeking approaches in West Africa, toxic exposures such as lead poisoning and adverse health consequences.
Margai collaborated with a number of people in the Geography Department. “She, John [Frazier] and Eugene [Tettey-Fio] collaborated on a book dealing with race and ethnicity, and she and I did some food research on Burkina Faso and some environmental health-related research with the City of Binghamton on soil-lead content and learning disabilities in Binghamton school children a number of years ago,” said Henry.
“She was easy to work with, and she had definite ideas,” Henry added. “She was very committed to her students and to research.”
Tettey-Fio didn’t often collaborate directly with Margai, except on the book with her and Frazier, but he frequently reached out in an unofficial capacity. “We would ‘go behind the scenes’ and we would advise each other,” he said. “We had a shared interest in the methods we used and we would talk about that.
“Even as we enjoyed our American country and home, Florence was the person I felt comfortable with without any hesitation and she with me,” Tettey-Fio added. “Florence was a confidant and very good friend that I’ve lost.”
“Florence was one of the first people I met during my tours of the campus in January 2012,” President Harvey Stenger said. “I immediately knew that I had met someone who had a deep caring for Binghamton University and was someone admired and respected by the entire community. She brought nothing but excellence to her roles as a faculty member, department chair, associate dean in two offices and as a great scholar and teacher. I will miss her dearly.”
Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Donald Nieman knew Margai only casually at first, but learned what a strong scholar she was and how fascinating her research was when he reviewed her promotion file. He then had the opportunity to travel to Turkey with her last spring when they represented the University and Harpur College to meet with several partners. Throughout the trip, traveling and attending meetings, Nieman said he found out what a truly lovely person Margai was.
“She had a deep relationship with her daughters and a sense of pride in them that wasn’t boastful,” he said.
“Her research dealt with really important and challenging health issues in the developing world,” Nieman said. “She brought interesting research techniques to bear, but it was borne out of a deep human concern for the people affected. I saw that human concern in my interactions with her, and in her interactions with others.”
As a colleague, administrator, teacher, researcher, she was also able to take a position but never made it personal, Nieman said. “When others were out of their comfort zone, Florence had the ability to articulate the reasons why something should be done. She had the ability to give or take criticism without taking it personally, remaining serene and staying focused on the issue at hand. She always conveyed a deep respect for others and that made interactions with her different from the norm.”
Margai brought a high level of accomplishment in research, teaching and service – and an absolute dedication to student success and faculty development – to her associate dean position in Harpur College, Dean Anne McCall said. And she had an enormous impact in her short time in the position. “Florence was the founder of the culture of accomplishment for faculty development, she worked with faculty to set up the grant writing circles, she began a more formalized networking and mentoring program for junior faculty, and she was in the process of organizing a research charrette.”
Her administrative expertise in graduate studies was critical to her position, McCall said. “We were very interested in her understanding of the technicalities of graduate school funding, graduate student union issues, rules for applications and the many aspects of graduate studies. And she had a vision for how to develop graduate studies for Harpur College. She absolutely wanted us to increase in size in a responsible way while looking to develop the students and prepare them for their professional responsibilities.”
Her passion for promoting student success was evident. Margai served as co-chair of the Road Map Student Success committee and McCall said that Margai also insisted her full title as associate dean should include student success. “She wanted it in her title because she didn’t want it forgotten.”
Teaching was one way to help students succeed, and Margai continued to teach even while holding administrative positions on campus.
“One of the reasons she was intent on keeping her hand in teaching is she said it required her to stay on top of the new technologies coming out in her field,” McCall said. “She said it resulted in her being a sharper researcher. And since she didn’t want to keep her new knowledge and skills to herself, she wanted to teach again.”
Margai was known for setting the bar very high for herself. “In an office, when you bring in a person of that level, it raises the bar for everyone,” McCall said. “For me personally, and for the office, she set our sights higher and made us work toward higher ambitions. And because she was very process oriented, she thought very carefully about the steps we needed to go through to get to that higher vision.”
It seemed that everyone was eager to work with Margai. Words used to describe her include dignified, respectful, talented, smart, accomplished, warm, lovely, a person of integrity, one who brings joy, kind, dedicated to causes and helping those in need.
“Florence was one of the most gracious, wise, and pleasant people I’ve worked with at Binghamton,” Graduate School Dean Susan Strehle said. “An excellent scholar-teacher, she had an enlightened energy and intelligence that she invested in making the University a better place for everyone. Her loss is enormous for all of us.”
“She was so dignified, respectful and kind,” McCall said. “She was probably the most complete human being I’ve ever met, in the sense that she developed her talents, worked hard and excelled professionally while having a great family life, dear friends and being deeply involved in the community. She was all of that at the same time and that is so rare. She exuded curiosity, warmth, love, integrity.”
“Hard-working, shrewd, compassionate, a dear friend and very intuitive,” Tettey-Fio added. “Those are the things I personally found. And she was fun-loving! She could let her hair down and have a good time.
“In every sense of the word, Florence was a true ambassador for the discipline, department, the campus and for the African community that we have had in geography and other areas,” Tettey-Fio said. “Everybody knew that. Not only did she do her work on campus, but she was out there, she worked for NGOs, traveled, conducted research. She was someone who was always giving back and giving back to Africa, sharing her talent and resources, applying in every way possible the necessary means available to solve problems here and in Africa. In that sense, she was very unique.”
Margai is survived by her husband, William, two daughters, Luba and Konya, her mother, six siblings and many extended family members. Family will receive friends from 2-4 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, at Tabernacle United Methodist Church, 83 Main St., Binghamton, followed by a service at 4 p.m.
Additional services and burial will be in Virginia: Viewing and visitation from 4-8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 23, at the Mountcastle Turch Funeral Home, 13318 Occoquan Rd., Woodbridge, VA, 22191; and funeral and interment Saturday, Jan. 24, with viewing from 9-10 a.m. and a communion service from 10 a.m.-noon, at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 1400 G St., Woodbridge. Repass will follow interment.
Messages of condolence can be left online. An effort has been launched to establish a named fund to support graduate student education in the Department of Geography as a permanent reflection of Margai’s commitment to education, her discipline and her students. Memorial gifts may be made to the Binghamton University Foundation Memorial Account #10351. Note “in memory of Florence Margai” in the memo section of your check. Mail to: Binghamton University Foundation, P.O. Box 6005, Binghamton, NY 13902-6005. Online giving: Secure, online credit card gifts may be made online. Select “other, please specify” from the account drop-down menu, and then type “In memory of Florence Margai, BUF Memorial Account 10351.” Each gift will be acknowledged by letter from the Binghamton University Foundation along with a tax receipt. Direct any questions to Rebecca Hancock at 777-3360 or via e-mail.