Today Malcolm Gissen, JD (ADL '65), calls himself a social activist—but he exemplified the term for decades before it became part of common nomenclature.
Take his early days at Case Western Reserve, when he successfully pledged Phi Sigma Delta. Not long after his selection, Gissen approached his fraternity brothers about adding diversity to their ranks
They initially refused, saying that students of color were not allowed in the fraternity.
But the New York native pressed on anyway, eventually winning over his brothers. The integration of their fraternity chapter marked a first in university history.
Among the new fraternity brothers was Dick Thompson (ADL ‘65), who became so beloved by his peers that they voted him “Mr. Greek” his senior year.
Gissen and Thompson also teamed up on local housing enforcement—actively seeking out rental property owners who discriminated against students of color. They were successful in removing several properties from the university’s list of rental options.
Later, while a law student at the University of Wisconsin, Gissen was recruited as an aide for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an organization founded by former President John F. Kennedy to combat racial discrimination and inequity. Serving in Grenada, Mississippi, Gissen faced threats and intimidation from the Klu Klux Klan as he worked to organize Black residents seeking to desegregate the South.
Gissen finds his work a constant reminder of the missed opportunities standing right in front of us.
“What you realize is the incredible waste of talent and potential because of [the history of] racism in this country,” he said.
Honoring a brother
When Gissen learned of CWRU’s Emerging Scholars Program (ESP)—designed to promote the success of Case Western Reserve University students who graduate from Cleveland and East Cleveland high schools—he immediately thought of honoring Thompson, who died in 1983.
In 2017, Gissen and his fraternity brothers established the Richard A. Thompson ADL '65 Memorial Fund, and have continued to contribute in the years that followed.
ESP students are often the first in their families to attend college; most have not experienced the same opportunities as many of their campus peers. Through ESP, students receive intensive academic support and work closely with the program’s leaders who provide encouragement and guidance, and connect them with resources across the university. Each year the university welcomes 12 students to ESP; their graduation rate consistently exceeds that of undergraduates overall.
Pelumi Obasa, a chemical biology major from Cleveland’s John Hay School of Science and Medicine hopes to apply what he learned his first year in ESP to a summer internship or program in a lab.
ESP support also provides students such as Obasa with the flexibility to participate in learning experiences beyond the classroom. Obasa, a member of the African Students Association and Black Student Union, plans to take advantage of the opportunity to become even more involved next year.
“At Case Western Reserve, I have been able to connect with people of different backgrounds and origins, and expand my empathy,” he said. “I have also been able to participate in events that have opened my eyes to the many programs and possibilities in the Cleveland community.”
Gissen considers his gift not just a continuation of his social justice work and a tribute to his fraternity brother, but also an investment in students like Obasa. Helping them achieve their collective potential not only benefits the students, but the nation as a whole.
“I’ve been involved with these kinds of programs for a long time,” he said. “But few have had success like Emerging Scholars.”