While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were taking their first steps on the moon, Western professor Farrokh Safavi was just settling in for his first month at Western.
Nearly 50 years later, at 78 years old, remnants of his time at Western are all over his office on the top floor of Parks Hall. One wall of his office is covered by a bookshelf with old textbooks. Pushed against the bookshelf are stacks of boxes and file cabinets full of past research projects, student papers going back decades and photos of countries where he’s done research. A white board on another wall is covered in drawings and messages from students.
But there’s one item, if you point it out, that will get Safavi really excited.
Proudly hanging next to a coat rack near the door is a wooden plaque awarded to him by the United States Patent office.
Safavi was awarded the patent in 1998 for a teaching method for statistics students.
“I was an innovator from the beginning. If I wasn’t here in the university, I would be the inventor of many useful devices,” Safavi said.
It was that innovation that helped him find his way to Western.
Safavi grew up in Tehran, Iran. He came to the United States in the 1960s and soon afterward completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California in 1964. After getting his doctorate, he got his first teaching job at Northrop University in California and soon afterward got a job at California State University Chico.
In June 1969, the then-chairperson of Western’s Economic and Business department heard about Safavi and invited him to join the faculty of the growing business department. At the time, Safavi said the department had around 20 faculty members. Safavi said he developed a curriculum for seven new classes in the department and helped turn it into its own college, known today as The College of Business and Economics.
Since then, Safavi has taught over 15,000 students. For reference, in Fall 2017, Western’s student body was 15,915 students, according to Western’s admissions office.
Safavi said he has invested time into each of those students. Ask him for proof and he’ll happily hand you thick stacks of graded papers marked in copious amounts of red ink.
Fourth-year student Miles Fields, one of Safavi’s international business students, said he takes more time to read their papers than any other teacher.
“His dedication to his work and his students are phenomenal,” Fields said. “He’s here on the weekends. Every weekend. Same hours.”
That dedication seems to pay off in the end for many of his students.
Safavi said he routinely gets calls from past students who tell him about the work they’re doing and how his teaching helped them in some aspect of their career.
Safavi said he tries to instill curiosity in his students. He wants them to question the world and why things are the way they are. He emphasises educating them as opposed to instructing them.
“An instructor is someone who provides knowledge of a skill or a profession or how to follow a procedure to get a job done,” Safavi said. “An educator is a person who creates the preparations for living a good life. For a just system.”
Safavi has witnessed a lot of change at Western, including 10 different presidents.
He said the university, in its effort to increase diversity, looks only at the color of someone’s skin and doesn’t account for the way people think, their language or their backgrounds.
Western, Safavi said, has not encouraged faculty and students to understand this.
“Diversity does not mean that you increase the percentage of [people of color] here if [they] are forced to change their behavior,” he said
While teaching is one of Safavi’s biggest passions, fitness is another. He can often be seen running around campus or working out at Western’s recreation center. He attributes his good health to his daily exercise.
He has been a member of Western’s Ski to Sea Race team since 1993 — making him the longest-serving member. Ski to Sea is an annual multi-sport team relay race that has been hosted in Bellingham since 1973.
Safavi’s passion for fitness was even featured in an article by the Iran Times, where he spoke about his Ski to Sea team. All of the other members are Western students, Safavi said.
Even with all the accolades he’s earned in his life, Safavi said his students are his proudest accomplishments.
“I want to continue to educate as long as my students receive benefits from my education,” Safavi said.