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UMW professor Denis Nissim-Sabat leaves a legacy of activism

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When Denis Nissim–Sabat retires from the University of Mary Washington over the summer he will leave behind the academic and social programs he championed, including parental leave for staff members, cost-of-living raises and the college’s popular Summer in Europe program—to say nothing of the monthly faculty poker game.

He started at UMW in 1976 and estimated that during his 37 years there, he taught psychology to more than 6,000 students. When he retires, he’ll be named a professor emeritus of psychology.

When he applied to graduate schools, Nissim–Sabat told them he wanted to use his degree to find a position that allowed him to teach, research and have a practice. He found all of those things at UMW.

Nissim–Sabat began working for UMW when Prince Woodard was president and has remained there through four other presidents.

He said he has witnessed “its change from a liberal arts college to a university and in some ways struggling with a loss of identity.”

He said one of the biggest changes he saw was the advancement of technology and how that altered his interactions inside and outside of the classroom.

When he started the NCAA men’s basketball bracket at UMW, he would cut the printed bracket out of the newspaper. Now, he downloads it online and said that next year participants will use PayPal rather than cash for the tournament bets.

He taught classes in general psychology, clinical psychology, tests and measurements, and Russian psychology, but his favorites to teach were abnormal psychology and the history of psychology.

“Students like to understand how others think, how someone starts to see things that aren’t there or hear voices in their head,” he said about abnormal psychology.

He felt like the history of psychology was important because it showed the theoretical background of the discipline and gave students context about what they studied.

Debra Steckler, chairwoman of the psychology department, called Nissim–Sabat “a great colleague and a great contributor to the department. He’s enthusiastic about what he does.”

She said that being politically active and interested in sports made Nissim–Sabat interesting to talk to outside of the classroom as well.

“It’s not all shoptalk,” she said.

Ernest Ackerman, a longtime computer science professor who retired and received emeritus status last year, has known Nissim–Sabat for about 25 years.

He said one of the things that struck him about Nissim–Sabat was his sense of social justice.

“One of the first times I saw him, he was out on campus interviewing people on what their ideas about race were,” Ackerman said. “That was typical of Denis, getting out there and finding out what people think.”

Ackerman helped Nissim–Sabat in some of his faculty governance initiatives.

He said he saw Nissim–Sabat take a stand for what was right but not popular in 2003 when he presented a resolution to the faculty senate spelling out a negative view of the invasion of Iraq.

During his tenure at UMW, Nissim–Sabat was awarded a congressional science fellowship by the American Psychological Association. He also served as legislative assistant for health care policy in the office of Illinois Sen. Paul Simon between 1989 and 1990.

He was a senior policy analyst with the APA and chair of its Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest.

Nissim–Sabat has served on multiple UMW committees and was faculty representative to the board of visitors and president of the faculty senate.

In the larger Fredericksburg community, he served as a member and chair of the board of directors of the Rappahannock Community Services Board.

Nissim–Sabat holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Case Western Reserve and a doctorate in clinical psychology from Temple University.

In his retirement, Nissim–Sabat plans to keep his practice in Fredericksburg, travel and write.

One writing project he envisions is a story about an interaction between Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, who, despite living in London at the same time, never met.

He said he originally became interested in psychology after reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Holden Caulfield’s mind, and the question of whether he was actually insane, intrigued Nissim–Sabat and convinced him to study psychology, rather than mathematics—his original plan.

He once assigned the book in a class.

He also used other books and films to show popular representations of abnormal psychology in his classes and help students relate to the discipline. He also required some students to read about current events.

“Life is bigger than the abnormal class,” he said. “It is bigger than the four walls here. They need to be aware of what’s going on outside.”

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976



Three other professors and one administrator will also receive emeritus status from the University of Mary Washington at undergraduate commencement Saturday.

Meta R. Braymer will be named vice president for economic development and regional engagement emeritus.

Roy F. Gratz will be named distinguished professor emeritus of chemistry.

Margaret A. Mi will be named professor emerita of marketing.

Larry W. Penwell will be named professor emeritus of management and psychology.

According to the university, the title of emeritus is bestowed on faculty members who have served the university for at least 15 years and who have attained the rank of professor or associate professor.