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Controversy sparked after response to death of beloved professor

Emails reporters sent regarding the professor's death Graphic by Ronnie Meiss | Staff Writer

Emails from senior administration honoring the deaths of business professor Deb Bishop and donor Jim Collier remind theater students of the lack of response regarding theater professor John Graham, who died last spring.

“[I just felt] shocked,” said theater student Note Aguilar on Graham’s death “I was really sad.”

Aguilar’s reaction to Graham’s death on April 3, 2023, was not uncommon among students. Junior Maddi Cave traveled to London with Graham for Drake’s January Term and learned of his death the day after from her roommate, junior theater student Amber Hussain. 

Theater students were informed of Graham’s death the day after in a department-wide meeting. Several students outside of Drake’s Theatre Arts program were confused as to why they didn’t receive a memorial email honoring Graham. Additionally, students who were not in the Theatre Department were not made aware of Graham’s death for days, weeks or even months.

“If I weren’t roommates with [Hussain], I would’ve never known that he passed away,” Cave said. “I wrote a tribute article for [Graham] for the Relays edition of The Times-Delphic. One of the [students who read it] didn’t even know [Graham] had died until they had read that article.”

Provost Sue Mattison sent an email on April 5 to faculty and staff, informing them of Graham’s death so that they could support students:

“Dear Colleagues,

I’m writing to share very sad news — our colleague John Graham, associate professor of Theatre Arts, died peacefully on Monday night, surrounded by his loved ones. Details of John’s remembrance will be forthcoming…The entire Drake community is grateful to John and his legacy. Please join me in sharing support and kindness to his loved ones, including his colleagues in the Department of Theatre.”

Later that month on April 26, President Marty Martin sent an email to faculty, staff and students informing them of the death of donor John Pappajohn. Students were surprised by the email after they received no notification about Graham’s death.

“I remember getting an email from [Martin] talking about this donor who had passed and thinking, ‘Why wasn’t there an email about a professor [who] continued to teach while being incredibly sick?’” Aguilar said. “He was bringing a breathing mask and air canisters to class to continue teaching.”

Timeline showing Senior Admin's response to the death of a professor

Timeline by Ronnie Meiss | Staff Writer

Some students who did not have a class with Graham on a day-to-day basis shared this sentiment.

“Why is it [that] the administration only feels it necessary to honor the people who donated financially?” Cave said. “They didn’t even send a school-wide email about a faculty member that a large chunk of people on campus saw on a day-to-day basis?”

In response to Martin’s email regarding Pappajohn, Cave reached out later that day.

“I was sorry to read your email earlier today of the passing of John Pappajohn. He seemed to be a wonderful person who made many important contributions to this school, and my thoughts are with his family and all those who loved him…Drake said nothing about [Graham’s] passing —  no emails, no mentions, no nothing,” Cave said in her email.

Martin replied the next morning, explaining the policy regarding how students are informed of faculty announcements:

“As the Chief Academic Officer for Drake University, the Provost is always the person who shares news about our faculty, both current and former. Until I asked her about it this morning, Provost Mattison believed she had sent her message to Drake faculty, staff and students. Unfortunately, students were mistakenly not on the distribution list.”

Junior Maria Heath, a current staff member of the Times-Delphic who was not on staff last year, sent an email to Mattison on May 2 asking why an email was not sent to the student body regarding the death of Graham.

“I’m not sure why you believe I didn’t send an announcement following John Graham’s death,” Mattison replied in an email.

In an interview with Times-Delphic Faculty Senate Beat Writer Andrew Kennard on Aug. 29, 2023, Mattison acknowledged that a message was never sent to the student body.

“In the past, I believe someone in Student Affairs has then forwarded the messages to students, and I don’t think that happened with John Graham,” Mattison said in the Aug. 29 interview. “The [professor’s] students are always notified first, and then we will send it to [all students] as well after that.”

Not all of Graham’s students were notified of his death. Senior music education major Richard Lock found out from the D+ Improv group chat after Theatre Department students were made aware. He woke up the next morning to an email stating his theater history class had been canceled due to Graham’s death.

“I imagined that there was going to be an email to the whole school a few days later or right when that happened, and I was surprised that there wasn’t one,” Lock said.

Upon request for comment on Sept. 27, Chief of Staff Nate Reagen provided the Times-Delphic with the following statement:

“Our practice — consistent with the responsibilities of their roles — is that the Provost acknowledges the passing of faculty members, and the President acknowledges the passing of others that are recognized by the institution.”

Upon further investigation, the above policy cannot be found publicly available in the Drake University Policy Library. Drake Chief Administration Officer Venessa Macro, who serves as the Policy Administrator, said in an email, “There is no university policy governing this topic.”

A celebration of life was held for Graham at the end of May. Despite this, several students still felt the issue had still not been resolved.

“The theater faculty handled this well,” Aguilar said. “They were very informative for us and very respectful of us. We held a celebration of life for him at the end of the year, and it was very beautiful and touching. My issue is with the people outside of the Theatre Department.”

In July, Professor Deb Bishop died. Students were informed of her death via an email from Mattison and Chief Student Affairs Officer Jerry Parker. Students were later informed by Martin about the death of donor Jim Collier in an email sent Sept. 22.

“It kind of feels like every time we get an email about a donor, I am reminded of John Graham dying, and I think, ‘Where was this when a professor that I worked with for two years died?’” Aguilar said.

Reagen said in an email reply to the Times-Delphic that Graham’s death was a tragic loss for many at Drake:

“As Dean [Gesine] Gerhard stated [in her email to Arts and Sciences faculty announcing Graham’s death], it’s hard to imagine the College of Arts and Sciences without John. The grief of his passing still remains, and I ask for…sensitivity and grace,” Reagen said in the email.

Upon a request for further comment, Parker issued an apology on Oct. 2 via email to the Times-Delphic in regards to Graham’s death:

“I’m sorry to say that it appears I did not forward Provost Mattison’s email to all students regarding the passing of Professor Graham. I take full accountability and responsibility for not getting this message out to all students. I know the deep impact Professor Graham had on his students over his many years at Drake. I know I worked with college and departmental leadership to secure counseling and support services for our students to process and reflect on the impact Professor Graham had on their lives. His impact on our students, including his colleagues, will be remembered for many years to come. I am proud of what the college and university have done since Professor Graham’s passing to celebrate his lasting legacy at Drake — so very much deserved for an outstanding educator. I apologize for my very unfortunate oversight.”

As the students whom Graham taught mourn his death, many continue to question how Drake senior administrators evaluate informing students about announcements regarding donors and professors. 

“I was not happy that there could be a death in the school and there not be any word about it except for whispers in the catacombs of FAC,” Lock said.



  1. Disgruntled Sad Senior October 13, 2023

    Do you really think that John Graham would appreciate this nonsense? What matters is that he was loved and mourned. Whether admin puts out a statement or doesn’t put out a statement has nothing to do with his value as a human being and a beloved figure at Drake. Admin does not only
    put out statements about donors. That’s absurd. What do you want admin to spend their time doing? I think we (students) focus way too much on what admin does or doesn’t do.

  2. Cassandra Schoene October 13, 2023

    @ Disgruntled Sad Senior JG would absolutely appreciate this “nonsense” he constantly said ‘F*** the system” and “stick it to man.” So, he would be very proud of students using the disrespectful nature surrounding how his death was handled on campus for highlighting the disparities and unequal treatment in the administration.

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