After 53 'remarkable' years, Mookherjee to retire

Composite photo.

Jen Vanderweyden
Huxley College of the Environment

In recognition of Debnath Mookherjee’s dedication to teaching and mentoring, alumni are working with the Western Foundation to establish a fund in his honor. Each year, an award will be given to a Huxley College professor who best embodies the excellence in teaching that Mookherjee has demonstrated over the course of his remarkable career. To donate online to the fund in Mookherjee's honor, please visit the Western Foundation's online pledge form.

In late December, the 12th Asian Urbanization Conference convened at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India. Huxley College’s own Debnath Mookherjee, an expert in urban geography and planning, offered the keynote address, speaking about the need for a regional planning approach toward urban sustainability.

Debnath Mookherjee is retiring from Western after 53 years.

Addressing an academic crowd on a topic he knows well is nothing new for Mookherjee, who began at Western as Assistant Professor in 1961. Since that time he has presented original research findings at more than 50 national and international peer conferences. What is new is that this conference is Mookherjee’s last major presentation as a Huxley professor—in June, he will retire from Western after five decades of service. Even after retirement, Mookherjee intends to continue his academic endeavors.

“What is amazing is not just the longevity of his career,” says George Pomeroy, conference organizer and a former undergraduate and graduate student of Mookherjee's. “What is especially remarkable is the passion that he has for research, for kindly nurturing students, and for engaging with the discipline. Even during this last conference in India, his actions illustrated these three points.”

Pomeroy, now Professor of Geography at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, is one of a long list of Mookherjee’s former students with only good things to say. Another graduate of Western’s master’s program in geography is Jerry Webster, professor and chair, Department of Geography at the University of Wyoming and a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award at Western. Pomeroy and Webster were so impressed by Mookherjee’s dedication both in and out of the classroom that in 2008 they collaborated on a book titled Global Perspectives on Urbanization: Essays in Honor of Debnath Mookherjee, whose contributors include leading urban geographers in the field today.

Webster comments, “Deb was a great mentor and set a wonderful example for my academic career. Though he had high expectations, he was always patient and supportive. I did not always agree with his suggestions at the time, but I realized a few years later that I was emulating him with my own students.”

Like Webster, Pomeroy cites Mookherjee’s patience and generously offered counsel both as a professor and as an ongoing professional mentor. Deb, Pomeroy notes, is recognized as a respected thinker in the broader academic community, and has long demonstrated a notable willingness to share quality advice in a reasonable and encouraging manner.

“He has ‘rescued me’ many times,” says Pomeroy, “first with subtle pushes to finish my thesis, then with encouragement to pursue a Ph.D., and later with advice for conferences, papers, and research.”

Mookherjee earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Calcutta before coming to the United States in 1958 to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Florida, where his research centered on land use and urban growth. In 1961, Dr. Mookherjee accepted an appointment at Western, where over the next decade he worked his way up from Assistant Professor to a full professorship. From 1983 to 1992, Dr. Mookherjee served as chair of the Department of Geography and Regional Planning at Western. He also served as director of the Center for Geography and Regional Planning from 1992 to 1993.

“Professor Mookherjee has distinguished himself as a faculty member at Western,” says Steve Hollenhorst, dean of Huxley College. “Through his steadfast dedication to his research and to his students, he has consistently elevated standards of teaching and professionalism at Huxley College and in the broader academic community. I have tremendous respect for Deb’s legacy at Western, as do the rest of our faculty and staff.”

Outside of WWU, Mookherjee has worked tirelessly on research and outreach within his field. He has been a visiting scholar at a variety of institutions, including The Evergreen State College, University of Oregon, and University of Washington. He has also maintained membership in a number of professional organizations such as the Association of American Geographers, the Washington State Geographical Association, and the Geographical Society of India. In 1996, as a longtime member of the Association of American Geographers, he received a Distinguished Service Award for his activities with the AAG Regional Development and Planning Society Group.

His list of publications is long and noteworthy, and includes too many book chapters, reviews, conference papers, and articles in peer-reviewed journals to name. As Webster notes, “Deb published his first article in 1956 and continues to publish the results of his work. While most successful academic careers are 30 to 40 years in length, Deb’s career is well into its sixth decade. Truly remarkable.”

In addition to mentoring future academics such as Webster and Pomeroy, Mookherjee has also helped guide the careers of geography and urban planning professionals. Take Ken Johnsen, who studied Urban and Regional Planning under Mookherjee’s tutelage. From Western, Johnsen went on to direct the master planning, facility planning, and market research efforts for the Port of Portland. From 1996 to 1999, Johnsen served as Executive Director for the Public Facilities District in Seattle in charge of designing and building Safeco Field. Since 1999, he has guided the development of several major projects, including Seattle's new Justice Center, City Hall, and modern streetcar line.

“Though I graduated from Western over 30 years ago,” Johnsen says, “my memories of being Mookherjee’s student are still fresh. My gratitude for him is still fresh. His thoughtful approach to urban and regional planning inspired me to pursue my career in that field. He was always available to students. When I told him about my interest in port planning, he arranged an internship for me at the Port of Bellingham. And that led to my first job at the Port of Portland.”

Another of Mookherjee's former students, Dan Pike, served as Mayor of Bellingham from 2007 to 2011. In recalling Mookherjee as a professor and mentor, Pike says, “Three words come to mind. Intentional, in that he was always thinking about the right path, and then taking it. Intelligent, in that he could break the most complex and challenging issues down and present them as digestible food for thought. Engaged, in that he was always available and listening, ready to work with students and others trying to make progress. I would also add a fourth, exceptional, in that he never flagged in his delivery of the first three, continuing to this day.”

Jonah White, Mookherjee’s most recent graduate advisee, describes a similar regard for his years at Huxley: “My experience with Professor Mookherjee has been, and continues to be, absolutely delightful. Rarely in my academic career have I had the pleasure of working with someone who is so thoughtful, caring, and engaged with his students. Deb is the kind of professor that reminds you of what professors are supposed to do: foster a student’s abilities and growth through constructive critique as well as selfless support.”

In recognition of Mookherjee’s dedication to teaching and mentoring, alumni are working with the Western Foundation to establish a fund in his honor. Each year, an award will be given to a Huxley College professor who best embodies the excellence in teaching that Mookherjee has beautifully demonstrated over the course of his remarkable career. To donate online to the fund in Mookherjee's honor, please visit the Western Foundation's online pledge form.

“I don’t believe an award of this nature could be made in honor of a better professor or more wonderful person,” says White. “I wholeheartedly believe he embodies countless attributes that we all could use to make ourselves better people.”

Johnsen concurs: “When I annually return to talk to a class at Huxley, there is Mookherjee–still thoughtful, still engaged, still contributing. He represents what a great teacher should be.”

Pike adds, “He is an inspiration regarding what is possible, and for choosing the right way over the easy way.”

In the words of numerous students, advisees, and colleagues, Mookherjee will be missed at Huxley. However, his legacy—in teaching and research, in mentoring current and former students, and in engaging with the academic work and community to which he has dedicated his professional life—will not be forgotten. Not in the least.

Reposted with permission from the Huxley College website.