She’s a night owl and doesn’t sleep much.
It’s normal for her to be productive at 2 a.m. knocking back an espresso or a Red Bull because that’s the only time she can get things done. During the day, she dashes between history lectures and meetings, appointments with Holocaust survivors and event preparations.
But, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Marilyn J. Harran, history and religious studies professor, and director of the Rodgers Center and Stern Chair in Holocaust Education, focuses her energy on educating students about the Holocaust to keep the stories and memory of those living, and lost, alive.
Teaching at Chapman for the past 25 years, one of Harran’s goals is to prove to her students how people tend to think that a higher education leads to only good deeds towards humanity. Connecting students to survivors of the Holocaust and fostering interaction between them dispels this naïve belief.
“I realize every day how much more we should be doing,” Harran said. “Seeing how testimony can be manipulated by Holocaust deniers causes me great concern and reaffirms my belief in what I call education of the head and heart – the connect that happens when a student and a Holocaust survivor meet.”
An only child, Harran was born to Eugene and Barbara Harran in Westfield, Mass. on July 22, 1948. Marilyn J. Harran moved to a place of stark contrast from the East Coast when she was about six: Tucson, Ariz., due to bronchitis. Her parents thought moving West would be better because of doctors’ recommendations.
“I liked the West,” Harran said. “I got to ride ponies and thought it was just the coolest thing in the world.”
Harran’s parents, also known as Gene and Bobbie, grew up during the Depression. Her mother completed high school and earned her diploma, while her father took on an apprenticeship working in an independent dental laboratory.
“He went from being an apprentice to owning his own business in about 10 years,” Harran said. “He did some amazing gold work – teeth, bridges – he once made a pair of leaf-shaped earrings out of dental gold for my mother.”
While attending Catalina High School in Tucson, Harran’s interest in education, history and religion perked when she realized that she wasn’t exactly cut out for her dream profession of being a doctor.
“After my first chemistry class I knew that this wasn’t going to be for me,” she said.
Encouraged by her Russian language teacher, Harran’s interests changed from medicine and science to languages, philosophy and diplomacy.
“It was always the idea of helping people that attracted me,” Harran said.
She graduated from high school in 1966 and began her university career at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. where she earned an undergraduate degree in religion in 1970.
Harran pursued post-graduate studies, earning a Master of Arts degree in 1972 from Stanford, as well as a Ph.D. in Religious Studies in 1979. From 1973 through 1976, Harran completed her dissertation research in Germany at the University of Tübingen.
Having studied German since high school, Harran thought going to Germany would be an opportunity to practice the language. Or at least she thought it would be useful.
“I spoke ‘hoch Deutsch’ – or ‘High German’ – which as I discovered when I got to Tübingen had absolutely nothing to do with the local German dialect of Swabian,” she said. “I went to the store and couldn’t even figure out how to buy a loaf of bread.”
Harran began her career as a teaching assistant in the early 70’s at Stanford and then in Tübingen, Germany before gaining an instructor position at Barnard College at Columbia University in New York in 1976.
During her time at Barnard where she met another future Chapman professor and someone who has been a colleague of hers continuously for the past 30 years, Marvin Meyer. Meyer is now chair and Griset professor of bible and Christian studies, and director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute.
While instructing at Barnard, Harran was mugged twice in the city – enough was enough.
Having received a tenured position offer from then-Chapman College, Harran decided another move westward was in order.
Harran and Meyer were both hired in 1985 to work at Chapman, but neither was aware they would be working at the same university.
“When we came to campus on the first day, we looked at each other and said, in surprise and almost unison, ‘Marilyn?’ ‘Marv?’ and we have been close colleagues ever since,” Meyer said.
Harran’s career has been marked and recognized with many distinguished awards, such as outstanding faculty awards, community and service awards, and international fellowships from the 1980’s through today. But the creation of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and a stronger emphasis on religious studies at Chapman is one of the most profound and outreaching.
And the center grew simply from an idea.
“My favorite thing is going from the conceptualizing of an idea to realizing it,” Harran said. “We thought it was a big deal when we had 50 people at an event. Now, we routinely have close to 1,000.”
The Holocaust isn’t the only case in history about genocide. There are instances in Rwanda, Armenia and other countries.
But for Harran, it’s the most poignant because it highlights the role of higher education and how it can be misused, such as with the Nazi’s and their “final solution,” when they were convinced that what they were doing – eradicating Germany and Europe of Jewish people – was good.
“Beyond that, however, it’s about not only keeping alive history and memory, but about translating that knowledge into how we live today,” she said.
About 10 years ago both the Rodgers Center and the Stern Chair – courses and educational resources on the Holocaust – were created by Harran and Jessica MyLymuk, Holocaust education coordinator for the center. Two other members also run the Rodgers Center, Ashley Bloomfield and Joyce Greenspan.
MyLymuk, a Chapman alumna from 1999, has worked with Harran for the past 11 years.
She was also one of her students.
With at least a decade of knowing and working with each other, for MyLymuk, Harran has become more than just a boss. Or, a colleague, as Harran insists they are.
“She has always set the example of doing what you love and what keeps you inspired,” MyLymuk said. “She’s also a treasured friend and, most definitely, a beloved member of the family.”
Junior Liane Burns, dance major and Holocaust history minor, has taken several of Harran’s courses and worked at researching the history of and interviewing Holocaust survivor Engelina Billauer.
“The biggest lesson I could ever take away is the importance of family,” Burns said. “It’s a beautiful thing when her grandchildren see her and her husband Richard as heroes. Family is everything.”
The Rodgers Center has been successful in accomplishing its goals for the community, but Harran is not done developing it yet. She has more dreams for it and for the people it serves: students.
“I would like to continue to build this program, develop new courses and work on individual projects with students,” she said. “Seeing Holocaust survivors interact with students has been – and remains – the most rewarding part of my life. As Elie Wiesel calls it, the students become ‘witnesses to the witnesses.’”