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Villanova University President's Report
Focus on Revealing Hidden Truths

Uniting history with modern culture, scholars at Villanova seek answers to difficult questions by critically reexamining the past and challenging cultural assumptions about the present. By bringing untold narratives to light, they shift perspectives on history and culture, and contribute new context to today’s world.

Giesberg and Jerrido are interviewed on TV
Judith Giesberg, PhD, professor of His tory, and Margaret Jerrido, archivist at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, were interviewed by CBS Evening News about a project undertaken by Dr. Giesberg and her gr aduate students to digitize ads that former slaves placed after the Civil War to locate long-lost family.

Uncovering Stories of Families Divided by Slavery

Slavery tore apart families, wrenching parents from children, husbands from wives, sisters from brothers. More than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, the descendants of former slaves still feel the effects of these severed family ties.

After the Civil War, freed slaves bought advertisements in African-American newspapers with hopes of finding long-lost family. The ads listed names, circumstances of separation— any memory that could spark a reconnection.

Even now, there are painful stories left untold, ones that tug at the heart, says Judith Giesberg, PhD, professor of History and director of the Graduate Program in History. To keep these stories from being lost to time, Dr. Giesberg and her graduate students digitized more than 2,000 advertisements, launching the “Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery” project.

“These ads have been overlooked for a hundred years. They have the potential to open up new doors to those whose family trees end with slavery,” says Dr. Giesberg, who is also editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era.

The ads offer glimpses of mothers who have not seen their children since they were just old enough to crawl. Daughters searching for their mothers after three decades apart. People searching, against all odds, to find their kin. In a handful of cases, Dr. Giesberg found ads from the era that recounted stories of successful reconnections with family.

Volunteers helped transcribe the documents and contributed their own advertisements or records of their own families’ stories. The project grew to include a website with a searchable archive that gives descendants, genealogists and researchers new tools to study this time in American history, and new insight into the lives of former slaves, which were by turns desperate and hopeful.

The “Last Seen” project has been covered by The Washington Post, CBS Evening News, NPR and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more than 1 million people visited the website in the first six months. Additionally, Dr. Giesberg and her graduate students have brought the project into local communities through seminars and programming.

“Family is an essential part of the human experience, yet enslaved people were routinely denied family in the US. They held on to memories of their loved ones,” Dr. Giesberg says.

Looking for Truth in Advertising

Bennett teaches to her class
Aronté Bennett, PhD, associate chair of Marketing and Business Law, studies the effects of marketing on society.

A pair of Marketing faculty at the Villanova School of Business are leading voices on how marketing campaigns can be reflections of society, both in who is included and who remains out of sight.

For two decades, Charles R. Taylor, PhD, has tackled this subject from the perspective of one of the world’s biggest sporting events and marketing opportunities— the Super Bowl. Dr. Taylor, the John A. Murphy Professor of Marketing and senior research fellow at the Center for Marketing and Consumer Insights at Villanova, has turned a critical eye to the commercials that dominate the media before and during the big game each year. Because of this and other research, he was awarded the Flemming Hansen Award for excellence in advertising research by the European Advertising Academy. In 2017, Dr. Taylor’s analysis, published in Forbes, found that diversity in marketing has made significant progress, responding to societal moves toward inclusion and realistic portrayals of minority groups.

His research drew on an assessment of the impact of diversity on Super Bowl advertisements over the last five years. More than half of the commercials featured people of more than one race, with appearances by Latino and Asian-American models increasing in frequency. Looking at responses to the ads on social media and other metrics, Dr. Taylor revealed that diversity alone did not make the messages resonate. Rather, combining creativity with diversity, he found, created the most resonance with audiences.

While strides are being made to diversify marketing efforts, the impact of less inclusive campaigns still lingers, going beyond brand perceptions and sales. Aronté Bennett, PhD, associate chair of Marketing and Business Law, researches how the omission, intentional or not, of minorities in marketing efforts can be harmful to those groups’ identities and experiences. Those omissions can lead to restricted consumption and the reinforcement of institutional privilege, wrote Dr. Bennett in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.


Dean Alexander speaks at a podium


Law students immersing themselves in the First Amendment are turning to a new book co-authored by Mark C. Alexander, JD, the Arthur J. Kania Dean and Professor of Law, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. A Short & Happy Guide to the First Amendment is a concise and engaging guide to help lawyers and nonlawyers alike better understand one of our fundamental rights, tracing the First Amendment’s history to current issues, including hate speech and campaign finance.


A forthcoming book by a Villanova Political Science assistant professor examines how and why countries confront, excuse, ratio­nalize or, in some cases, deny violence and atrocities in their pasts. In Changing the State’s Story: The Politics of Dark Pasts in Turkey and Japan, Jennifer M. Dixon, PhD, explores the narratives these two countries have constructed about dark periods in their history. Investigating the roots of ongoing contestation over the 1915–1917 Armenian Genocide and the 1937–1938 Nanjing (Nanking) Massacre, Dr. Dixon writes that international pressures can push states to reevaluate past atrocities, but domestic political considerations shape how far states are willing to go in addressing dark pasts. More generally, the book sheds light on the persistence of contention over and the difficulty of “coming to terms” with past wrongs.


A Villanova teacher-scholar’s expertise has helped to ground a Netflix miniseries on the Roman Empire in historical reality. By providing commentary for the Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies Andrew Scott, PhD, gave deeper context to the show’s portrayal of historical figures and political infighting.


Contributing key insights into the lingering consequences of British, French and Portuguese colonial rule in Asia, Africa and the West Indies, Olukunle P. Owolabi, PhD, assistant professor of Political Science, has published a working paper on the developmental legacies of colonial states that used separate laws for settler and native populations. His paper, published by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, found that colonies with a distinctive legal system for indigenous populations experienced worse developmental outcomes over the long term than colonies that developed an inclusive and universal legal system.


Historians possess deep knowledge of the past, and communicating that effectively and persuasively in today’s media environment is essential to societal understandings of our present and our future. Director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest Jason Steinhauer has created the field of “history communication,” speaking to Time, CNN and Inside Higher Ed on the role historians now play in providing accurate, research-based information to the public through new media. Steinhauer recently traveled to Lithuania at the invitation of the US Department of State to discuss history communication and how historians can help to combat the spread of fake news, fake history and propaganda online.