Tribute to Sepehr Zabih

By Stephen Woolpert, Dean of School of Liberal Arts

Dec. 5, 1925 – July 11, 2009

I first met Sepehr Zabih, then chair of Saint Mary's Government Department, in the fall of 1980 at the American Political Science Association Conference in Washington, D.C. I was teaching then at the University of Maryland, and was searching for a position at a smaller liberal arts college. I was struck by Sepehr's stature as an internationally known expert on Middle Eastern politics. He embodied the qualities of both a teacher and a scholar. He was in Washington not only to recruit a new faculty member, but also to meet with high-level members of the diplomatic and foreign policy community.

One foggy January day a few months later, I arrived in Moraga to interview for the position. Sepehr was not on campus; he had taken a group of students to Harvard to participate in the Model United Nations program as part of his January Term class. Some 50 campuses sent teams, each representing a separate country. Naturally, Saint Mary's was representing a Middle Eastern nation. I also learned that through his extensive network of personal contacts, many Middle Eastern students came to Saint Mary's to study.

Once again, Sepehr served as a model for me: demonstrating how faculty at Saint Mary's could connect their students with the world at large while developing close personal contacts with them. Later, I had the pleasure of attending soirees at his home at which he and his wife, Joan, entertained scholars and friends from around the world. His network of experts provided guest lectures for our students or filled in for him when his research took him away from the classroom.

Sepehr was a pioneer. Today, many of our students travel during January Term, or spend a full semester at one of our affiliated campuses around the world. Sepehr also worked assiduously to secure the College's support for faculty scholarship. Funds to allow faculty to conduct their research and present scholarly papers were once nonexistent, but now our faculty enjoy support from a variety of resources, including the Faculty Development Fund, the Grants Development Office, Alumni Research Grants and initiatives supported by top administrators.

While it might seem strange to faculty who view administrative work as something to be avoided, I remember that Sepehr actually liked being the chair of our department. Sepehr served in that capacity for so long that I assumed it was a permanent appointment (perhaps he did too). By the time I came, he had professionalized the department, setting expectations for high achievement in both teaching and scholarship that remain intact to this day.

My initial meeting with him was nearly 30 years ago, and I am still grateful that Sepehr recruited me to join the faculty here.