Nickoll Family Chair to be awarded to renowned history scholar and UCLA faculty member
History alumnus Ben Nickoll ’86 was brought up in a family in which helping others and giving back were the norm. Now, he has given back to his alma mater by establishing the Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History, which will have a focus on women’s history. The inaugural holder will be renowned scholar and writer Brenda Stevenson, who will be formally installed on October 24.
“I am proud to have known Ben Nickoll since my days as Dean of Social Sciences,” said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh. “His professional career, values and character are testaments to the importance of a liberal arts education.”
He said that the gift would help to ensure the quality and relevance of UCLA’s history department for decades to come.
“As a historian myself, I am deeply touched.” He said.
History chair Stephen Aron said that the gift would bolster the department’s efforts to attract and retain world-class faculty like Stevenson, whose research focuses on the history of slavery in the U.S. and Atlantic World, particularly of enslaved women.
“With this wonderful gift, Ben Nickoll has signaled his belief in the enduring value of a history degree, of excellent teaching, and of studying the past to shape a better future,” Aron said.
Nickoll grew up near UCLA, so it was a familiar fixture in his childhood. He recalled skateboarding through the campus, hanging out in Westwood with friends and attending basketball games with his dad at Pauley Pavilion. His parents were actively involved in the local community and in politics.
“They stood up for what they believed and gave to causes where they could have an impact,” he said.
When he first enrolled at UCLA, he had no idea what he wanted to study.
“Then I took a class taught by Prof. Roger McGrath, a gifted storyteller who brought historical characters and events to life in the classroom,” Nickoll said. “I was hooked and became a history major soon after that.”
After graduation, despite a lack of investment experience, Nickoll moved across country and talked his way into a job on Wall Street. He held high-level positions at top investment banks before co-founding investment firm Ore Hill in 2002. After that firm was sold in 2011, he founded El Faro Partners, an investment firm focused on real estate, private equity, credit and agriculture.
Nickoll is a member of the history department’s Board of Advisors and gave the commencement address at the department’s graduation ceremony in 2008. He is also a founding member of the board of the Fink Center for Finance and Investments at the Anderson School of Business.
“My wife, Chrissy, and I acknowledge that there are many worthy causes and organizations,” Nickoll said. “We believe in focusing the majority of our energy in our local communities, not just financially but also with action when possible.”
And he said he felt the time was right to make a major gift to his home department at UCLA.
If the liberal arts and subjects like history continue to be overlooked in favor of the sciences and engineering, he said, students might not develop a sufficiently broad, informed world view.
“I believe that the study of history is relevant to all aspects of life,” he said. “Take the investment world—an investor needs to understand context and how elements affecting past performance can affect a company today and in the future.”
For her part, Stevenson said that the Nickoll chair would allow her to take her work to a different level.
“Thanks to the Nickoll chair, I will now have the resources to undertake larger projects more efficiently and expediently,” Stevenson said. “I’m also going to be hiring some undergraduates to do a long-term project that deals with the history of racial violence in America. Private funding is so important for research initiatives that really do make positive contributions to our lives and to the world and to educating students.”
A professor of history and of African American studies at UCLA, she is the author of several books, including Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South.
Although most of Stevenson’s work focuses on the 19th century, and particularly the Southern U.S., she received the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism award for her 2013 book about more recent events in Los Angeles, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots. Stevenson has been awarded several fellowships, including a Guggenheim in 2015.
Stevenson is at work on two new books: a history of the slave family from the colonial through the antebellum eras and a history of slave women. Her work continues to shed light—on the page and in the classroom—on important parts of human history with a view to creating a more just society.