Finalists Selected for Baylor's $250,000 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching

  • Cherry Awards Ad
  • Teresa C. Balser
    Teresa C. Balser, Ph.D., professor of soil and water science, University of Florida
  • Michelle Rae Hebl
    Michelle Rae Hebl, Ph.D., professor of psychology and management, Rice University
  • Lisa Russ Spaar
    Lisa Russ Spaar, M.F.A., professor of English and creative writing, University of Virginia
March 27, 2015

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WACO, Texas (March 27, 2015) – Three preeminent scholar/teachers from U.S. universities have been selected as finalists for Baylor University's 2016 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, the only national teaching award – with the single largest monetary reward of $250,000 – presented by a college or university to an individual for exceptional teaching. The winning professor will be announced by Baylor in spring 2016.

The three finalists are:

Teresa C. Balser, Ph.D., professor of soil and water science, University of Florida

Michelle Rae Hebl, Ph.D., professor of psychology and management, Rice University

Lisa Russ Spaar, M.F.A., professor of English and creative writing, University of Virginia

As Cherry Award finalists, each professor will receive $15,000, as well as $10,000 for their home departments to foster the development of teaching skills. Each finalist will present a series of lectures at Baylor during fall 2015 and also a Cherry Award lecture on their home campuses during the upcoming academic year.

The eventual Cherry Award winner will receive $250,000 and an additional $25,000 for her home department and will teach in residence at Baylor during fall 2016 or spring 2017.

“The Cherry Committee has the difficult task of naming three finalists from a strong field of more than 100 nominees for the 2016 Cherry Award,” said Michael W. Thompson, Ph.D., committee chair and associate dean for undergraduate programs in Baylor's School of Engineering and Computer Science. “Learning about each nominee’s accomplishments and dedication to great teaching is both inspirational and humbling. The three finalists for the 2016 award are excellent scholars and great teachers. We look forward to their campus visits during the fall 2015 semester.”

The Cherry Award program is designed to honor great teachers, to stimulate discussion in the academy about the value of teaching and to encourage departments and institutions to value their own great teachers. Individuals nominated for the award have a proven record as an extraordinary teacher with a positive, inspiring and long-lasting effect on students, along with a record of distinguished scholarship.

The award was created by Robert Foster Cherry, who earned his A.B. from Baylor in 1929. He enrolled in Baylor Law School in 1932 and passed the Texas State Bar Examination the following year. With a deep appreciation for how his life had been changed by significant teachers, he made an exceptional estate bequest to establish the Cherry Award program to recognize excellent teachers and bring them in contact with Baylor students. The first Robert Foster Cherry Award was made in 1991 and has since been awarded biennially. More about the Cherry Award is available at

Teresa C. Balser

Balser earned A.B. degrees in earth sciences and biology from Dartmouth College in 1992, and a Ph.D. in soil microbiology from University of California-Berkeley in 2000. She engaged in postdoctoral research on ecosystem ecology at Stanford University in 2000-2001, and has served as a visiting scholar for the Institute fur Umweltwissenschaften in Zürich, Switzerland and at the University of Kyoto's (Kyoto, Japan) Center for Ecological Research. From 2001-2011, Balser served as a faculty member and administrator at University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2011, she was named dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at University of Florida. She now serves as professor of soil and water science at University of Florida.

Balser has been awarded for her research and teaching, including selection for a National Science Foundation Early Career Award and election as a Fellow of the Soil Science Society of America. She was chosen as a 2012 Vision and Change Leadership Fellow by the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education, funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and Howard Hughes Medical Institute; named 2010 U.S. Professor of the Year (Doctoral and Research Universities) by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; and, in 2009, was honored with the National Excellence in College and University Teaching Award from the USDA and Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. She was recently chosen as a Fulbright Distinguished Chair to India for work on life sciences education.

Balser’s research interests are in the area of environmental science and education. She is an internationally known educator, advancing educational goals through the incorporation of active learning, innovative curriculum design and teaching-as-research initiatives. She is experienced in a wide range of teaching activities – small and large classes, public outreach, agronomic extension and professional development workshops. She is a recognized workshop leader and speaker on education and change.

Michelle Rae Hebl

Hebl earned her B.A. in psychology with high honors from Smith College in 1991, a master’s degree in psychology from Texas A&M University in 1993 and her Ph.D. in psychology from Dartmouth in 1997. She serves as a professor of psychology at Rice University, where she has worked since 1998. In 2002, she was a visiting scholar in Stanford University’s psychology department.

Hebl has won more than a dozen awards for teaching and her work with issues of gender and diversity, including Rice University’s George R. Brown Prize for Superior Teaching (2002, 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2012); the Distinguished Teaching Contributions Award from the Society of Industrial/Organizational Psychology (2008); Rice’s Julia Miles Chance Prize for Excellence in Teaching (2005); and The Sage Award for Scholarly Contribution (2014), a lifetime award from the “Gender and Diversity in Organizations” Division at the Academy of Management. She was nominated for CASE Professor of the Year in 2009 and 2014, which honors the “most outstanding undergraduate instructors in the country – those who excel in teaching and positively influence the lives and careers of students.”

Hebl, who has received research grants from the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation and the National Cancer Institute, is an applied psychologist whose research focuses on issues related to diversity and discrimination. Specifically, she examines subtle ways in which discrimination is displayed and how such displays might be remediated by individuals and/or organizations, according to her website.

Lisa Russ Spaar

Spaar earned her B.A. with high distinction and summa cum laude honors in English language and literature from the University of Virginia in 1978. She earned her M.F.A. in creative writing (poetry) from the University of Virginia in 1982. In addition to teaching for more than 20 years in the University of Virginia’s department of English, she has held positions at James Madison University and University of North Texas.

Spaar’s many awards and fellowships include the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Award (Spring 2015); Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences Research Award (2014-2016); Jefferson Scholars Foundation Faculty Award (2013-2015); Outstanding Faculty Award of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (2010); Guggenheim Fellowship (2009-2010), Carole Weinstein Poetry Award (2011); Library of Virginia Prize for Poetry (2009); and a Rona Jaffe Award for Emerging Women Writers (2000-2001).

Spaar has penned, edited and published dozens of poems, books, chapters, anthologies and essays during her career. Her publications include: The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry, Vanitas, Rough: Poems and Satin Cash: Poems. More than 80 of her poems have been published in publications such as Boston Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, SLATE, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Kenyon Review and The Yale Review. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

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