It’s almost too good to be true: The person who could be counted on for leadership and service at the University of Cincinnati over the past 25 years also served as a volunteer firefighter for almost 15 years when he wasn’t investigating membrane transport processes in the gastric system.
"When I was a little boy, I always wanted to ride on a fire truck,” says John Cuppoletti, PhD, a professor in the department of molecular and cellular physiology and winner of the 2011 Faculty Award for Exemplary Contributions in Service to the University of Cincinnati. And that’s exactly what he did later in life as a lieutenant and president of the volunteer fire department for the Cincinnati suburb of Greenhills.
"I had to know what everyone’s skills were and assign tasks according to skills, so I think I learned a lot of leadership there. I also learned that no one ever pats you on the back for doing a good job—they always say, ‘This could be done better.’”
Actually, so does Cuppoletti, which is one reason for his success as a teacher, researcher and mentor over the past 25 years at UC. The same philosophy has guided his efforts in service and leadership, starting at the departmental level and continuing to positions that have included chair of the Faculty Senate, chair of the Ohio Faculty Council and president of the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
To put it another way: When Jerry Lingrel, PhD, who has been a member of the College of Medicine faculty since 1962, says, "I have never seen anybody contribute so much to the university during the time that I have been here,” it’s time to sit up and take notice.
Lingrel, interim chair of the cancer and cell biology department, has served with Cuppoletti for the past 12 years on the University Standing Committee on Conflict of Interest—a thankless task involving large egos, complicated rules and delicate balancing acts.
"John has been an absolute stellar member of this committee,” Lingrel writes in his letter of nomination for Cuppoletti to receive the award. "His homework makes the committee work very efficiently. This does not mean that everybody agrees with him or does not agree with John but we always work through the pros and cons and have always come to a unanimous recommendation.”
As Cuppoletti puts it, "I am outspoken, and I generally speak my own mind—but when I’m representing other people I also remember that I’m representing them.”
So why does Cuppoletti endure the endless committee meetings and risk the enmity of fellow faculty members, not to mention the potential for trouble with higher-ups?
The short answer: "I never say no.”
The longer answer?
"A university is a strange place,” begins Cuppoletti, well aware of the layers of meaning packed into that short sentence. "First, you must do teaching and you must have research. Then you have this whole organization about you that needs some kind of input from the faculty and then from all the stakeholders.
"Sometimes it was just impossible for me or my colleagues to get certain things done because a new rule might be in place or an old rule might need to be changed. So I’d enter into the discussion, find an appropriate group and join in.”
Cuppoletti has been particularly active in the areas of tenure, academic freedom and due process and appropriate discipline.
"We have to be able to protect our ability to do work,” he says. "If we didn’t, someone could call up the president of the university and say, ‘Dr. Cuppoletti’s research is garbage—it doesn’t agree with mine; fire him.’ And the president might just do that if we didn’t have some protection.
"And that goes for all these young people who are coming up through the system. They have to learn how to get things done and that they have certain rights and responsibilities. I think that’s what really drives me.”
Cuppoletti, whose undergraduate and doctoral degrees are from the University of California, Davis, joined the UC faculty in 1986 along with his wife and research partner, Danuta Malinowska, PhD. He has received over $14 million in extramural grants over his career at UC, has 13 patents and has trained over 70 individuals from high school students to visiting international scientists.
As chair of the Faculty Senate (2004–2006), he established the Faculty Staff Giving Campaign and received the 2006 Trustees Award for Exemplary Service to the University of Cincinnati from the UC Foundation.
Fittingly enough, the Faculty Award for Exemplary Contributions in Service to the University of Cincinnati was established by the Faculty Senate under Cuppoletti’s leadership.
Another nominator, Henry Nasrallah, MD, of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, calls Cuppoletti "an excellent academic citizen who is always willing to help anyone at any time, and who has given extraordinary service to the University of Cincinnati.”
Cuppoletti sums it up simply, with a touch of understatement:
"It’s been a pleasure having such a full life here.”