Hope, activism, compassion: The legacy of Margaret Brabant

Margaret Brabant smiles while exploring Cuba as she and other faculty members traveled from Havana to Santa Clara. Brabant visited the island as part of a faculty program in 2012. Photo by Susan Adams.

BRIDGET EARLY | OPINION EDITOR | bfearly@butler.edu

GENAVIEVE SMITH | OPINION COLUMNIST | gmsmith@butler.edu

ABBY PLUFF | OPINION COLUMNIST | apluff@butler.edu

Even before everything turned upside-down and we struggled to transition to quarantined online classes, Margaret Brabant would burst into the classroom each morning with greetings, jokes and a comment or two about what she’d recently seen on the news, ready to start the day and dive into discussion. After a quick meditation and “circling up” together, she’d ask about our weekends — calling everyone by name — and follow through on details of conversations from the week before. 

Our semiweekly political theory Zoom calls have been no different. One by one, our classmates pop into our virtual classroom, some of us half asleep, most of us clutching mugs of coffee. We wave to one another as we configure our settings, preparing for the day’s discussion. And in the corner of the screen, Brabant presides over it all, her characteristic energy and enthusiasm radiating through the tinny audio and grainy video as she asks about each one of us. Just as before, Brabant brings us together, assuring us all of the value we offer our small community each class.

While these classes allow us to maintain some sense of normalcy, they’re bittersweet; they’re the last classes we get to spend with Brabant before she moves on from Butler. After nearly 30 years of community-building and passionate educating, the Brabant we all love and admire is retiring from Butler, leaving a legacy behind that her students and those who have had the opportunity to work with her will seek to carry on.  

Since arriving at Butler in 1991, Brabant has exuded compassion, enthusiasm and dedication to her work. She has consistently brought her peers and students together to contemplate the future of democracy, reminding all to bear in mind lessons from the past. Just this past Thursday, for instance, she encouraged our class, which is studying the dangers of totalitarianism in a modern context, to write to our congresspeople, saying she sees our faces each time she urges a congressperson to think wisely — a testament to Brabant’s commitment to her students and our futures.

“These are the words that come to mind when I think of Margaret: fierce, fearless, funny, warm-hearted, insightful, tuned-in and committed. Margaret will fight for things that matter, and has little time for things that don’t. I loved teaching with her.” 

— Arthur Hochman, professor of education

If you were to ask people who know Brabant to describe her, they’d paint you a picture of a formidably intelligent and dedicated contributor to her community, a determined and inquisitive scholar, and an empowering educator passionate about sharing her understanding of the world with the people around her. Oh, and her fiery sense of humor would certainly make an appearance, too. 

But unlike many collegiate educators, there is a crucial factor that sets our beloved political science professor apart. Brabant has always been an educator whose research serves as the foundation for her engagement with her students — not a researcher who educates in her free moments. 

Teaching others about the workings of the world is her motivator. Brabant’s specialty is asking difficult, thought-provoking questions, engaging with the ideas her students bring to the conversation and advocating for the things she knows are most important. When Brabant listens to you, she listens to understand, and she responds to connect and explore the concepts her students bring to the discussion. 

It’s not just about the learning, though. Between our discussions of scholars like Bryan Stevenson and Aristotle, her lighthearted requests for memes and music suggestions create a welcoming, fun classroom environment that fosters community and friendship.

Even though Brabant has a career’s worth of hard-earned academic credentials to fuel her opinions, she values students as conversational equals, encourages our interpretations and perspectives and is always willing to learn from the students she teaches. She doesn’t shy away from saying she doesn’t know something, either — in fact, she takes note with enthusiasm, determined to explore any unanswered query. 

“What strikes me about Dr. Brabant as most impressive is her willingness and courage to open Pandora’s box of difficult and serious questions every single day. She comes prepared to approach nearly any issue, unafraid and unhindered by challenges many would prefer undisturbed.” 

— Ben Brown, junior

For all her brilliance, some things will remain a mystery; on a lighter note, Brabant continues to fight a valiant battle against technology, which — though we give her grief for it — is probably the only thing that occasionally outwits her, invariably prompting laughs and muttered cursing.

In short, classes are never boring and slacking is never an option — Brabant makes sure to ask what you’re thinking if you’re quiet for too long, as many a woefully-unprepared student can certainly attest. 

Even when you aren’t enrolled in her current classes, Brabant always makes time to stop and talk, whether you just want to chat about life or rigorously discuss something in the world that is bothering you. She’s simply the best at never making anyone feel invalidated or as if they’re overreacting — she listens and offers support, whether someone feels afraid, sad, angry or joyful. No matter what, she loves and respects each student for exactly who they are, whoever they are.

When it comes to her students’ specific passions, Brabant is always the first to offer words of encouragement. Whether that means words of advice about how to make a difference or words of support for her students who are already involved with various causes, she fosters the budding activist in each and every one of her students. She truly empowers everyone she meets to make a change where they see one is needed. Nothing makes you feel more invigorated than Brabant’s charismatic speeches, sometimes given from her lofty perch atop assorted chairs, tables, trashcans, stairwell scaffolding rigs — you get the idea.

Brabant’s ability to instill confidence in those who surround her is unparalleled — no matter what halfway looks like for you, Brabant meets you there. Her goal is always to see you grow, and she is rarely disappointed. 

Brabant is always seeking to strengthen the connection we as Butler students have to our community and our sense of duty to the world we are entering, building a sense of gratitude and respect for the people, places, and institutions we interact with as she goes along. 

She founded the Center for Citizenship and Community — which coordinates the university’s Indianapolis Community Requirement — and was one of the leading proponents for the creation of the gender studies program, now known as the gender, women and sexuality studies major, which teaches students to think consciously about topics as varied as critical university studies and prison abolition. 

Brabant’s drive to hold truth to power has been a fundamental part of her relationships at Butler. She has been an outspoken member of the faculty senate, an advocate for marginalized voices when issues arise with Butler buildings, green spaces and curriculums, and has been a consistent source of tips and leads for generations of Collegian writers. She is always looking to share what she knows and encourage students to pursue justice in the ways that appeal most to them. 

“Dr. Brabant began to talk of light overcoming darkness, perseverance overcoming complacency. Her tone rose as she stood up from the table and emptied the room of its quiet uncertainty.”

— Austin Klawitter, senior

Brabant has mentioned that she will be looking for volunteer opportunities with Planned Parenthood after she retires, and is planning travel opportunities to other continents in the coming years. Even though she’s bound for big adventures, she will always have a place with us — the family of students, faculty and staff she has built at Butler over her time here. 

Although Brabant is leaving at the end of the semester, her legacy will live on in the people who have been lucky enough to spend time with her. We will continue to ask tough questions, to be aware of what’s going on in the world, to stand up for what we believe is right and to always, always be considerate of one another. 

While we could go on and on about our love and admiration for Brabant, we also want to be sure to highlight the impact she has had on Butler’s community at large. Here’s what Butler students and faculty have to say about their time with Brabant.

Notes from the Butler-Brabant community

Notes, gathered via email, have been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

“Dr. Brabant was the first professor I met at Butler during orientation week as a new Bulldog. She was my FYS professor, advisor and now — four classes later — someone who I will be very sad to say goodbye to. She is someone I admire so much because of her genuine care and dedication to her students and their studies, something that I have been extremely lucky to feel from her for the past three years. Thank you for all you have done, Dr. Brabant, and for the impact you have made on my Butler experience.” 

— Morgan Klase, junior

“As a future educator, the role of my professors and past teachers really impacts me. I use them to make a guideline of what I should expect from myself and my students. Dr. Brabant has taught me the important lesson of recognition within the classroom. She listens to everyone speak as if they are the only person in the room, and she carefully commentates in ways to not offend, but that also provides comedic relief. I am incredibly grateful for every class I have been a part of with her.”

 — Sophia Barney, senior 

“I have known Dr. Brabant from the first day I started at Butler almost five years ago and would like to say I am honored to have worked with her over the years. She has been a good friend and confidant during my time at Butler, and I will miss her greatly. It has truly been a pleasure to get to know Dr. Brabant on a personal and professional level. I hope to help continue her legacy at Butler to some extent by continuing the work of the Center for Citizenship and Community that she started over 20 years ago.”

 — Hanako Gavia, assistant director for the Center of Citizenship and Community

“Like the trees surrounding Butler’s campus that she cares about so deeply, Dr. Brabant’s legacy and footprint at Butler ought to last for generations. She has planted seeds of knowledge (and hope) with the thousands of students she has worked with over the years. Some have already firmly planted their roots — but her favorite part is getting to watch them grow. Selfishly, Dr. Brabant has been a wonderful mentor for me during my first four years here at Butler. Whether it was helping me attempt to navigate life at a new institution, having a fellow colleague burning the midnight oil in our offices during countless evenings and weekends, or being able to share a kindred outlook on humanity, community and politics — I will be forever grateful. May she find peace, community and good humor in her well-deserved retirement.” 

— Greg Shufeldt, professor of political science

“What strikes me about Dr. Brabant as most impressive is her willingness and courage to open Pandora’s box of difficult and serious questions every single day. She comes prepared to approach nearly any issue, unafraid and unhindered by challenges many would prefer undisturbed. And as we know, as she’s taught us, the work must be done by each of us — even in her absence from the classroom, she will continue to inspire and invite us to take action in the world.”

— Ben Brown, junior

“Throughout her time at Butler, Dr. Brabant established strong and invaluable contributions to both the scholarly field of political science and practice of political advocacy, which will continue to offer foundation for feminist and progressive student activisms well beyond her tenure. Her presence on campus will be missed, though those who know her celebrate the opportunities that will come for her in retirement; she has been a point of inspiration and support for innumerable students, and I know I am far from being alone in gratitude for knowing and learning from her.” 

— Brooks Hosfeld, alumnus

“Dr. Brabant is a model of a Butler professor. I never felt more respected, more encouraged or more challenged than in my work with her.”

— David Sexton, senior

“In 2012 I was fortunate to travel to Cuba with Butler faculty, and this group included Dr. Margaret Brabant. I did not know her except by her sterling reputation prior to this trip and I doubt that she even knew who I was. Our group spent a lot of time together on an old American school bus, so there was ample time to talk. I was very moved by Margaret’s interest in me, in my teaching, and in what I wanted for my career at Butler University. I was hoping to move from an instructor position to a tenure track position at that time, and she generously listened, gave her wise advice and encouraged me greatly. And after the trip she checked on me regularly, asked for updates and cheered me every step of the way toward tenure. I will always treasure her kindness and confidence in me. We will all miss Dr. Margaret Brabant terribly, but I wish her a brilliant retirement.”

— Susan Adams, professor of secondary education

“Dr. Brabant cares so much about her students and is so personally invested in each and every one of our successes. She encourages us to be the best version of ourselves not only as students but outside the classroom as human beings.” 

— Rachel Spodek, senior.

“These are the words that come to mind when I think of Margaret: fierce, fearless, funny, warm-hearted, insightful, tuned-in and committed. Margaret will fight for things that matter, and has little time for things that don’t. I loved teaching with her. She always asked the best questions, the big questions. I managed to dig up an observation I did of her teaching from 1996. Here is an excerpt from that. ‘…this is a dynamic teacher. I saw the students not merely learning, but being excited about what they were doing. I saw students who were actively engaged with one another and with the teacher. Finally, I saw a teacher who models and inspires intellectual integrity and intensity in a way that goes beyond political science to a critical eye and a spirit for life.’” 

— Arthur Hochman, professor of education

“The day after the 2016 election, the political science department held a small meeting for students in need of answers and a place to process. The uncertainty in the air was thick and palpable, and there was tangible fear felt for all who would be severely affected by this change. The few who came were looking for answers, but in this situation, it did not seem like there were any. After some quiet back and forth, Dr. Brabant began to talk of light overcoming darkness, perseverance overcoming complacency. Her tone rose as she stood up from the table and emptied the room of its quiet uncertainty. She banged the table with her final call to action, demanding from her students, peers and allies even greater effort and empathy. I will never forget that small meeting in that small room in the basement of Jordan Hall, and I will never forget the conviction and thoughtfulness Dr. Brabant inserted into every part of Butler University she could.” 

— Austin Klawitter, senior

“My first experience with Dr. Brabant was the day after the 2016 election at a College Democrats luncheon. I was president of our chapter and had invited her on the request of other students and faculty who spoke highly of her. My first experience was not disappointing. Sporting a mockingjay pin and spouting words of inspiration, optimism and above all fire, I cried out of fear but also the hope that Dr. Brabant inspired in me. Following that interaction, anytime we saw each other in the hall I felt like a kindred spirit had my back. She was always warm and inquisitive to know about my future plans and goals. Truly a bright spot at Butler that has positively influenced my view of the university, even as an alumni. We all owe her our thanks.” — Maria Rapisarda, alumna

“As a newly-minted Ph.D. I came to Butler thinking that teaching in higher education was largely an intellectual endeavor. When Margaret introduced to me Parker J. Palmer’s book “The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life,” I learned that it was much, much more than that. The secret ingredient to great teaching, one which I had missed until that moment, was the deep emotional connection with the entirety of the teaching and learning experience, not least a connection with students. I have since come to know countless Butler faculty who exemplify this, but Margaret helped to awaken in me the aspiration to be a truly great educator.” 

— Su-Mei Ooi, professor of political science 

“Dr. Brabant changed my life and I’m thankful every single day for her wisdom. Her intelligence, outlook on the world and passion for her work captivated me as a first year student and it pushed me to dive into my coursework and college experience. When she became my advisor, I felt so lucky to have her as a mentor. On more than one occasion, I would go to her feeling defeated and hopeless about my work and aspirations. And she never let me sit in those negative feelings because, as so many people know, that’s not the Dr. Brabant way. The summer going into my third year at Butler, I was meeting with her to pick my classes and figure out where my credits fit in. It was at this meeting she said, ‘Wait. Hold on a second. Julia, you can graduate this year.’ I was quite shocked and laughed. And I said, ‘No way.’ So we sat and calculated, and sure enough, I was set to graduate in May, a year early. Suddenly the shock faded and pure fear took over me. I knew Dr. Brabant could tell, she asked how I felt, and I said, ‘terrified. What do I do? I’m not even 21 yet. Am I really ready to graduate from college?’ She looked at me and said, ‘Julia, you know I don’t bullshit. Yes, you are ready. The world needs you now.’ If Dr. Brabant hadn’t pushed me out of the nest, taken the time to mentor me or paid such close attention to how my credits were counted, I would not be where I am today. It is thanks to her I graduated in May of 2019 and now work for a member of the United States House of Representatives in policy and outreach, just like I had dreamed in her office. Dr. Brabant will forever be a mentor to me, and be known as the person who changed my life in the best way.” 

— Julia Bartusek, alumna

“Dr. Brabant has been so influential throughout my time at Butler. She has pushed me to think critically, explore new ideas and has shown me what it truly means to be passionate. Her guidance and support have helped shape me into the person I am today, and she’s an exemplary role model for the kind of person I want to become in the future.” 

— Amy Thompson, senior

“Dr. Brabant’s passion for both her students and work really set the tone for my Butler experience. She was one of the first professors I met when I moved to campus, and I am forever grateful for it. I learned so much more from her class than just Greek mythology. Dr. Brabant will be missed dearly and I wish her the absolute best in retirement!”

Madison Murphy, sophomore

“As both Dr. Brabant’s student and advisee, I can attest that there was never a dull moment when she was around. Dr. Brabant’s passion for civic engagement, women’s rights and justice could be seen both in and out of the classroom, as she made sure her students would leave Butler with a desire to make the world a better place. I am forever grateful to have learned from such an inspirational person and I wish her the best in her future endeavors.” 

— Cole McNamara, junior

“As a first-year, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Butler professors. Dr. Brabant quickly became one of my favorites. She’s extremely passionate about Helen of Troy and strives to impart knowledge to all of her students. She has helped grow my confidence as a college student and as a woman. She demands the best from me and in doing so has made me a stronger person. Not only is she an incredibly intelligent professor, but she is also an extremely kind one. She led weekly meditations to give us a respite from the stress of school and now having moved to online classes, she takes the time each meeting to ask each one of us how we are doing. She even opened her house to us first semester for our final and fed us a wonderful home-cooked meal. Thank you Dr. Brabant for always believing in me, inspiring me, and letting me ramble on in your office about my research paper.”

— Gretchen Erdmann, first-year

“Not all people who teach actually allow their students to grow. Dr. Brabant, you have been the most important academic figure of my time at Butler. No other professor has supported me when I’ve failed and encouraged me the way that you have. My difficult time in college has been helped along by your patience, your mentorship and your friendship. Butler has been so lucky to have such a kind and caring faculty member, you have shaped my life in such a positive way and I’m sure countless others could say the same. Thank you for your inspiring teaching but so much more so for your trust and guidance and friendship.” 

— Lydia Ochs, senior

“As a shy and unsure freshman, Dr. Brabant was the first professor I met here, and she truly made an impact on me just in that first meeting, making me feel welcome and confident about my decision here at Butler. From that day, I always look forward to my meetings with Dr. Brabant, whether we are talking about our shared interest in the Classics and my travels to Greece or whether she is giving me the best advice on how to tackle life outside of these four years. I admire not only how much she truly cares about the success and interests of her students, but also how passionate she is for what she teaches.” 

— Gracie Munroe, senior

“Dr. Brabant has truly impacted my life for the better. I’ll never forget when I was struggling freshman year, she took the time to sit with me in her office and she made me tea and we ate girl scout cookies and talked for like two hours. She’s an amazing woman and she always gives me that extra push to keep going even when I think I can’t!”

—​Brookelynne George, sophomore

“I only had the pleasure of having one class with Dr. Brabant, my ICR. What always struck me about her — both in her teaching and just as a person — was how meaningful every question she asks is. She asks questions to get to the bottom of something, to help you see something in a new way, and she doesn’t waste her breath. Despite only having one class with her, Dr. Brabant and I talk every time we run into each other, and it is always such a joyful interaction to talk to someone with as much intellectual curiosity and who is so fundamentally kind. Thank you, Dr. Brabant, for all you’ve done. We’ll miss you. Enjoy your retirement!” 

— Nate Lemen, senior

“Dr. Brabant is an exemplary human being and I could not be more grateful I got to spend my first year in college with her. Every week I looked forward to going to her class because she could make any topic interesting and tie it back to what we were learning using political arguments and her extensive knowledge of Helen of Troy. Her kindness and intellect always made me feel welcome and like I could achieve anything. I wish her all the best and hope our class can have a reunion in the fall because I will miss seeing her and the rest of our FYS every week.”

—Lilly Thumm, first-year

“One of my fondest memories of college is when Dr. Brabant invited us over to her home for dinner every year.  She always checked on each one of us to make sure we were doing well.  I had the pleasure of getting to know her better as a political science student.  I appreciated that no matter how busy Dr. Brabant was, she always took the time to chat and catch up.  When I find myself talking about my time at Butler to others, I always bring up something that Dr. Brabant taught me.”

—Alyssa Gulick, alumna 

“I work on the third floor of Jordan Hall, near Dr. Brabant’s office. One day, she stopped to compliment my work. This might have appeared as a simple kindness to anyone passing by, but on that day, I heard empowering words in her forceful, sincere voice that gave me confidence to enroll in a graduate program. I am grateful that she recognized that capacity in me. She has been an inspiring person in my life. Thank you, Dr. Brabant!” 

— Amy Arnold, administrative specialist for the history and anthropology department

“On my 21st birthday, I went out with my friends on a Sunday night in lieu of a Monday morning class with Dr. Brabant. The friends I went out with were all from the bookstore where Helen, Dr. Brabant’s daughter, had also worked. We ended up at Brother’s, where I downed an entire Long Island while ignoring the straw. My friend Kelli filmed me on Snapchat with my quote ‘I don’t use plastic straws’ as a caption. The next day, visibly hungover, I waddled into Brabant’s class to the surprise of a guest poet. The poet called on me to read an extra poem to the class after we’d circled the room — I thought it was because of my fluid and steady pronunciations, but most likely Dr. Brabant wanted to mess with me a little. She was the first professor I had ever met on campus, and we had maintained a solid relationship since. Later in the day, I emailed Dr. Brabant about a potential event on campus and she replied, but there was a special message in the email. At the bottom of the professional exchange, it read: ‘P.S. I don’t use plastic straws either. Happy Birthday.’ The head of the department I was majoring in had somehow seen the embarrassing video of me. Looking back at it now, it speaks to the great relationship Dr. Brabant and I have, and the humor she brings to every situation. To this day, I still try to piece together how she saw the video: Did Helen show her, despite being states away at the time? Was she at Brother’s too? Regardless, it is a lasting positive and funny memory I will always have about a professor who I have known for four years now.” 

— Ivan R., senior 

Student has been kept anonymous for future employment purposes.

“Out of all of the numerous professors I have taken classes with during my time at Butler, Dr. Brabant has by far been one of the most influential, kind, and supportive I have met. Even as a college senior, she would still wave to me around the halls of Jordan Hall, ask how my dance classes and rehearsals were going, and host annual gatherings at her home out of the kindness of her heart for all of her FYS students past and present. She is such a positive beam of light and it always put a smile on my face whenever I ran into her and we just picked up right where we left off in conversation. I am so thankful to have chosen her FYS about Helen of Troy, because how many other college freshmen get to say they went to their professors house and dressed up as Helen of Troy? I guess Dr. Brabant and I are leaving Butler University at the same time, during this crazy and unprecedented time. Although I am sad I never got to give you a final goodbye in person, I want to wish you all of the best on this next chapter of your life and thank you for making my college experience — especially my freshman year — one that I will cherish forever.” 

Ken Shiozawa, senior 

“Dr. Brabant added so much more to my experience at Butler than I could have ever imagined from taking her FYS class. Her passion for the topic she taught was contagious, and it was amazing to have a professor who showed me how to find the passion in all of my other classes. She pushed me in the best possible way in our classroom, but also as a person.  As someone who is very afraid of public speaking, Dr. Brabant gave me so many tips and encouragement throughout our different presentations that I am not as scared doing speeches and presentations in my other classes. Beyond the classroom, Dr. Brabant was the professor who made Butler a home to me. I have been to her house two times for a beautiful home-cooked meal and I can’t emphasize how at home I felt with all of the students and her because of the environment she created. I will miss Dr. Brabant and I’m so honored to be a student who has taken one of her classes.”

Kaela Horan, sophomore

“It is a great pleasure to share a few words in recognition of my long-time friend and colleague, Professor Margaret Brabant, who will be retiring this year after three decades of teaching and service to the Department of Political Science and to Butler University.  Dr. Brabant’s most notable legacy is the founding role that she played in Butler’s Center for Citizenship and Community, but she will also be remembered as a professor who has for years both challenged and inspired students in her classroom. She will be missed, but she will also be remembered for her integrity and for her dedication to the mission of Butler University.”

—Paul Hanson, professor of history and anthropology

One last meme for when Brabant might need it in retirement. Photo courtesy of Pinterest. 

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