The winner of the 2020 AIA Gold Medal remembers his first teaching job 35 years ago with humbling clarity. “I enjoyed it. I just wasn’t very good at it, as many of us are the first time we do something,” Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, recalls.

The acclaimed architect’s academic career has come a long way since then. Earlier this spring, the distinguished professor and E. Fay Jones chair in architecture at the University of Arkansas was named the 2020 SEC Professor of the Year, the Southeastern Conference’s highest faculty honor. It is the first time in the award’s nine-year history that the coveted distinction has gone to a professor in the creative arts.

Integrated Scholar

It’s fitting that Blackwell received both awards in the same year as the dual achievements underscore the architect’s lifelong pursuit of the academy and practice. “In the SEC, we talk about the integrated scholar, the professional that combines teaching with service to their profession,” Blackwell says. “That’s always been my goal. The interface with both helps stimulate both.”

Beyond Athletics

Though widely renowned for its sports prowess, the SEC is among the nation’s highest academically achieving athletic conferences in the U.S. It’s one of four NCAA conferences with all of its members receiving the “very high” research activity designation from the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. Only 3% of all U.S. educational institutions maintain a similar research standard.

The SEC Professor of the Year is selected by the Conference’s provosts from among the 14 SEC Faculty Achievement Award winners—one from each member university. It is believed the SEC is the only athletic conference to honor faculty with an award not related to intercollegiate athletics. “This is truly about a faculty member and his or her commitment to teaching and research,” says SEC associate commissioner for academic relations, Torie A. Johnson.

Academy and Practice

That commitment runs deep for Blackwell. What is remarkable is how he has navigated both worlds with such merit. On the academic side, he was named among the "30 Most Admired Educators" for 2015 by DesignIntelligence. He served as architecture department head at the University of Arkansas from 2009 to 2015 and led development of the department’s integrated design studio, the capstone experience in the professional curriculum. As a practicing architect, Blackwell is co-principal of Marlon Blackwell Architects, top-ranked for Design in the 2016 Architect 50 and named as the 2011 Top Firm by Residential Architect.

Dual Distinction

Either résumé would constitute an exceptional life’s work for nearly anyone else. How do you achieve both in Fayetteville, Ark.? He credits two forces in his life. First, the University of Arkansas for granting him the gift of time to pursue his design interests. The other, his wife, business partner, and design collaborator, Meryati Johari Blackwell, AIA. “She is an amazing talent in her own right. A lot of this doesn’t happen without her support.”

The SEC Professor of the Year award carries special significance to the educator-architect: “I’m usually recognized either for my practice or academic work. This award recognizes both, a rare thing,” Blackwell says. A singular tribute to the individual, university and profession.