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Three Emory faculty elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences
photo gallery of the three staff members

Faculty members (left to right) Deborah Lipstadt, Laura Otis and John Witte Jr. have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which convenes leaders from every field of human endeavor to examine new ideas and address issues of importance to the nation and the world.

Three Emory University faculty members have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies and a leading center for independent policy research.

Emory faculty elected this year include:

  • Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies
  • Laura Otis, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor Emerita of English
  • John Witte Jr., Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law and McDonald Distinguished Professor

“It’s a joy to see three of Emory’s exceptional faculty scholars celebrated for their intellectual contributions to society,” says Ravi V. Bellamkonda, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “Election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is a high honor that speaks to the powerful role academics can play in raising important questions, generating novel ideas and shining a light on challenges that face us all. I congratulate Emory’s newest academy members on this outstanding recognition by their peers.”

Lipstadt, Otis and Witte will join 30 other Emory faculty who are members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which elected its first members in 1781 and announced its newest members April 24. The 250 members elected in 2024 are being recognized for their excellence and invited to uphold the academy’s mission of engaging across disciplines and divides. 

“We honor these artists, scholars, scientists and leaders in the public, non-profit and private sectors for their accomplishments and for the curiosity, creativity, and courage required to reach new heights,” says David Oxtoby, president of the academy. “We invite these exceptional individuals to join in the academy’s work to address serious challenges and advance the common good.” 

The academy elects members in 31 “sections” organized within five “classes” based on areas of expertise. The three Emory professors elected this year are all in the humanities and arts class.

Deborah Lipstadt: From Emory to the State Department

Elected in the history section, Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute for Jewish Studies and the Department of Religion in Emory College of Arts and Sciences. Described by the White House as “a renowned scholar of the Holocaust and modern antisemitism,” she is currently on leave from Emory to serve as the United States’ special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, a position in the Department of State with the rank of ambassador.

In 1993, the same year she joined Emory’s faculty, Lipstadt published her award-winning book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” the first full-length study of those who attempt to deny the Holocaust. She ended up making history in her own right when she was sued for libel by David Irving, a Holocaust denier from Britain. The case, which was filed in England and lasted six years, resulted in a 10-week trial, which Lipstadt and her legal team won, proving her accusations against Irving were true.

She documented the trial in her book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2006), and her landmark stand for historic truth inspired the 2016 motion picture “Denial.” Her latest book — “Antisemitism: Here and Now” (2019) — is an examination of the resurgence of antisemitism across Europe and the U.S.

Laura Otis: Intersections of science and literature

Otis, elected in literature and language studies, began her career as a scientist, earning a bachelor’s degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry and a master’s degree in neuroscience. Before receiving her PhD in comparative literature, she worked in labs for eight years. A fiction writer as well as a literary scholar, she earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College.

An emerita faculty member in English at Emory College, Otis studies and teaches about the ways that scientific and literary thinking intersect and foster each other's growth. She works with British, Spanish, German, French and North and South American literature, especially 19th-century novels. She is especially interested in multisensory imagery and emotions and has recently worked as a guest scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

In addition to her academic books, Otis has written several novels, including “Refiner’s Fire” (2019). In 2000, she was awarded a MacArthur fellowship for creativity. Her most recent academic book, “Banned Emotions: How Metaphors Can Shape What People Feel” (2019), draws on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology to challenge popular attempts to suppress certain emotions.

John Witte Jr.: Scholar of law and religion

Elected in the religious studies section, Witte is Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, McDonald Distinguished Professor of Religion, and faculty director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, which works to produce and promote groundbreaking scholarship, teaching and public programs on the interaction of law and religion around the world. 

A faculty member in the School of Law since 1987, Witte is a leading specialist in legal history, human rights, religious freedom, marriage and family law, and law and religion. He has published 45 books in 15 languages plus 325 articles and 18 journal symposia; among his latest books are “The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and the Law” and “In Defense of the Marital Family,” both published in 2023. 

With $26 million of funding raised from the Pew, Ford, Lilly, Luce, and McDonald foundations and other benefactors, Witte has directed 20 major international projects on democracy, human rights and religious liberty; on marriage, family and children; and on law and religion — collectively involving 1,600 scholars worldwide and yielding 380 new volumes and journal symposia. 

‘To cultivate every art and science’

Founded in 1780 in the midst of the American Revolution by John Adams, John Hancock and others, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences convenes leaders from every field of human endeavor to examine new ideas, address issues of importance to the nation and the world, and work together “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

Induction ceremonies for new members will take place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in September 2024.

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