There are certain professors who do extraordinary work but do not seek the spotlight and thus go unknown to much of the student body. Michael Leffel, professor of Psychology, exemplifies this behind-the-scenes role.
Michael McKinney, professor of Literature and German at PLNU, had Leffel as a student and taught with him when Leffel came back to PLNU as a professor.
McKinney shared how Leffel was Valedictorian of the 1977 class at PLNU as well as being an Academic All-American on the baseball team.
“He was a psychology major, was a brilliant student and a great profound thinker,” McKinney said.
After graduating from PLNU, Leffel earned his Ph.D. in Personality and Social Ecology at the University of Illinois, then went into private practice as a therapist for 10 years in Denver. He later came back to teach at PLNU in 1992.
McKinney said he used to co-teach a course with Leffel called “The Human Challenge” which integrated literature with psychology.
“We could actually talk about literary themes, because literature represents the great questions, and then go into depth from someone who’s versed in psychology to deal with them on a more practical, human level,” said McKinney. “I loved going to class just to listen to him (Leffel).”
Senior Psychology major Kimberly Ayres did research with Leffel for a year and a half and worked as his teaching assistant during her freshman year. Ayres also took his Psychology of Religion course, a class where students’ faith ranged widely from atheists to strong Christians. Ayres said Leffel spent much of his time reading the atmosphere of the class and teaching it to their needs.
“I felt like by the end of the class all the different people with all of our different tastes and styles got to find God in our own ways,” she said.
Ayres talked about how she respected the way Leffel “lets complicated issues continue to be complicated.”
Apart from teaching several classes, Leffel is also currently working on his own research.
Ross Oakes-Mueller, also a professor of Psychology at PLNU, is currently working alongside Leffel on “The Good Physician” research project which was started by the University of Chicago.
Oakes-Mueller said that the “The Good Physician” project is a study aimed at understanding what creates generous medical doctors. The University of Chicago initially hired Leffel as a consultant five years ago and he has since helped develop their surveys, seeking to figure out a theoretical paradigm for measuring the targeted virtues of a generous physician. The initial results of the longitudinal study are currently in the process of publication.
Leffel says that in addition to being driven to pursue his research, he also loves teaching at a liberal arts school.
“I am inspired by the potential that human beings have to continue to elevate their lives, to grow up into the fullness of what we are capable of,” he said.
Leffel believes that teaching at a liberal arts institution such as PLNU has a different aim than teaching at a non-liberal arts university.
“Teaching psychology as a liberal arts, that is a set of disciplines that deepen you and broaden you and grow you as a person, is really different than teaching psychology to train people to be scientists. And it’s tricky to balance between the two,” he said.
Leffel compounds a strength for theoretical thought with the ability to go in depth with a few individual students, a trait Oakes Mueller deeply admires. Due to his mentorship, Oakes Mueller said students often go on to complete graduate work and do “well to think both conceptually and empirically.”
It is this willingness to engage with his students that signifies Leffel’s impact not only on PLNU, but on graduate schools he will never step foot on that benefit from the students he has equipped.