Campus News

Clayton Koppes Receives Distinguished Achievement Award

June 18, 2018

Communications Staff

Clayton Koppes
Professor of History Clayton Koppes
Photo credit: Provided by Clayton Koppes

Professor of History Clayton Koppes was awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award from Bethel College, where Koppes earned a bachelor's degree in history. The award acknowledges character and citizenship, achievement in a chosen profession or vocation, and work of benefit to humanity.

Bethel College released the following announcement about Koppes:

American history, the academic world, and social justice have been lifelong passions for Clayton Koppes, and Bethel College played a role starting early on.

Koppes, this year’s Distinguished Achievement Award winner, lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and grew up in North Newton just blocks from campus. He was drawn to the concerts, lectures, and sporting events the college offered.

When he became a Bethel student himself, he says  he “absorbed the college’s commitment to the highest academic standards, exemplified by the beloved history professor Keith Sprunger” and was “inspired by Bethel’s moral commitment and pursuit of social justice” – which led him to join two dozen other students and faculty on a journey to Selma, Alabama,  in 1965 to march for civil rights.

“Those Bethel values have guided my scholarship and service,” Koppes says.

Koppes has devoted his career to teaching and writing about American history, and to academic administration.

He graduated from Bethel with high honors in 1967 with a B.A. in history, then earned an M.A. from Emory University, Atlanta, and a Ph.D. with honors from the University of Kansas, both in history as well.

Following four years as a senior research fellow in history at the California Institute of Technology, Koppes began teaching at Oberlin (Ohio) College in 1978, where he was named the first Irvin E. Houck Professor in the Humanities.  

Koppes served as academic dean and provost at Oberlin, 1996-2005, taking on the additional role of acting president in 2000. As dean, he expanded and diversified the faculty and staff, and launched new programs in Comparative American Studies and Cinema Studies.

Koppes was appointed to a short term as Oberlin interim president in 2017.

Koppes’ scholarship explores the exercise of power in establishment and insurgent politics and culture.  Much of his writing focuses on the intersection of motion pictures, propaganda and censorship.

He is currently completing the first book-length study of movie censorship in the United States, from the 1890s to 1968 when today’s ratings system was adopted.

In Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, with co-author Gregory Black, Koppes explored the conflicting demands of art, commerce and propaganda in film (Free Press, 1987; in paperback by the University of California Press and still in print).  

Koppes’ first book, JPL: A History of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was published in 1982 by Yale University Press and won the Dexter Prize, for the best book in the history of technology, from the Society for the History of Technology. JPL analyzed how rocket science developed in the Cold War era and shaped the exploration of space.

Koppes has also published numerous scholarly articles in American foreign policy and environmental history.

He explained how racism undermined the perspective and reputation of George F. Kennan, the otherwise revered father of the containment doctrine. As part of an anthology on controversial Cold War cultural exchanges, Koppes analyzed the Cleveland Orchestra’s grueling tour of the Eastern bloc in 1965. In another article, he showed how U.S. opposition to Mexico’s nationalization of its oil industry undermined Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy towards Latin America.

Koppes has served as president of the American Society for Environmental History, was a founding member of Oberlin’s innovative Environmental Studies program, and has written prize-winning articles on clashes between development and preservation of natural resources.

He has presented papers at many American history conferences, and at scholarly meetings in the Soviet Union, Finland, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Spain, Canada and Mexico.

Koppes’ teaching portfolio has covered U.S. history since the Civil War. He says he “particularly enjoys introducing subjects as new fields develop” – such as “American Environmental History,” “American Movie Censorship,” “World Censorships,” “(US)SR: Comparative Cold Wars” and “American AIDS.”

Koppes will teach his last classes at Oberlin in the fall 2018 semester, but plans to continue scholarly work and advocacy, particularly related to HIV/AIDS.

The Bethel College Alumni Association presents the Distinguished Achievement Award to acknowledge character and citizenship, achievement in a chosen profession or vocation, and work of benefit to humanity.

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