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Head of the Class

Head of the Class

Professor Recognized With Elite Teaching Award


Murray Fortner learned an important lesson about the education profession from his uncle, a career teacher.

“He once told me that the difference between a bad doctor and a bad teacher is that a bad doctor can destroy only one life at a time,” Fortner recalled. “I appreciated then the importance of good teaching.”

Fortner, department chair and professor of psychology and sociology at TCC Northeast, took those words to heart, and he has long been recognized for his work in the classroom. In 2018, Fortner earned a pinnacle accolade: The Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation named him as a Piper Professor. The statewide award recognizes superior academic, scientific and scholarly achievements and dedication to teaching.

Fortner began his career as a professor after earning his bachelor degrees in English and journalism and a master degree in composition and rhetoric. Over the next four years, Fortner honed his skills as a teacher before deciding it was time to return to school. In 1987, he became the first African-American admitted to the University of Kentucky’s doctoral program in communications.

“After receiving my Ph.D., I came to a proverbial crossroad. I could either pursue a career at a major university and focus on research, or I could follow the path of a man who made a major difference to this country and the world, Dr. Martin L. King,” said Fortner. “Other than my father, grandfather and uncles, he was the man who inspired me most. He was the consummate teacher; he tried to school a nation.”

Fortner wanted to become an agent of change and decided he could best accomplish that in a classroom.

“I chose the community college because I felt that the emphasis on teaching was there. I chose the community college because I believed I would encounter more students who needed to know that those who work hard can sometimes surpass those with more talent who won’t,” said Fortner.

Fortner began his career at TCC Northeast as a professor of English. Over nearly three decades in the classroom, he has taught thousands of students in both the Humanities and Social and Human Services divisions, organized annual symposia, published scholarly works and served on numerous academic committees. He works to create seamless pathways from TCC to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and each summer, Fortner serves as a teacher in TCC’s Adult Education program.

“I enjoy helping people realize their full potential,” said Fortner. “I have helped many students move from getting a GED to enrolling in my college classes.”

Fortner also is dedicated to helping young students prepare for success. He founded a nonprofit called FOCUS (Future Outstanding College and University Students), which puts students on the pathway to higher education at an early age.

“More students from challenged backgrounds needed to know about college and I, along with my colleagues, wanted to be that voice,” he said.

In fall 2017, TCC Northeast’s Social and Recognition Committee took on the task of nominating an individual for the Piper award. Fortner quickly came to the forefront of the discussion, and those who work alongside Fortner were eager to share their perspectives.

“Quite simply, Murray Fortner is one of the most gifted teachers I have known in my career,” wrote Social and Human Sciences Division Dean Linda Wright in a letter supporting Fortner’s Piper nomination. “Observing him in his classroom is a joy. He is engaging, enthusiastic and always positive. One can’t help but leave his class feeling uplifted.”

“Throughout his entire career, [Fortner] has been a champion of education as the impetus for positive change,” wrote Joan Johnson, chair of TCC Northeast’s Department of Government and Paralegal Studies, to the Piper awards committee. “He is inspiring and motivational, and his passion for teaching shines through in everything he does.”

The proof is in the words of his students.

“As he teaches the subject content, he never misses a chance to teach us skills that translate into success far outside his classroom,” wrote Alice Muhindura, who took Fortner’s Introduction to Sociology and Social Problems classes. “Dr. Fortner provides guidance and encouragement, which, to some of us, might be equally or more important than the material covered in the textbooks.”

The Piper committee agreed with the high praise, naming Fortner one of just 10 Texas college and university professors to receive the award for 2018. He received a $5,000 honorarium and a gold pin to commemorate his selection.

“The TCC Northeast president, dean, vice president of academic affairs and my faculty and staff colleagues make this an environment conducive to achievement,” said Fortner. “I am honored to be a part of this team, as well as honored to receive the award.”

Fortner’s future plans include growing FOCUS to impact more young lives.

“At some point, I will reroute all of my energy to this project,” he said. “I want to reestablish education’s place on the agenda of African-American families in particular. I want to steer black communities away from being an ‘entertainment industrial complex’ and move masses back to classes. Entertainment and sports can change one family’s life temporarily. Education can change many families’ lives forever.”

For Fortner, that change is what matters.

“I have a brother who has a bachelor degree in business. He once told me that I have all the paper on the wall, but he has all the paper in the bank,” said Fortner. “I responded that he has spent his adult life trying to get rich, but I have spent my adult life trying to enrich the lives of others. I am a teacher. My reward is immeasurable.”

For more information about FOCUS and how to become involved, contact

TCC Piper Award Honorees

Fortner is the eighth TCC professor to receive the Piper Professor recognition since its establishment in 1958. Others include:

  • 1977: Gary Alan Smith, Associate Professor of Biology, TCC Northwest
  • 1984: David J. Clinkscale, Associate Professor of Government, Coordinator of History and Government, TCC Northwest
  • 1985: M. Duane Gage, Associate Professor of History, TCC Northeast
  • 2001: Laura Matysek Wood, Professor of History and Government, TCC Northwest
  • 2004: Eduardo Enrique Aguilar, Sr., Professor of Visual Art, TCC Northwest
  • 2007: Joel David Price, Associate Professor of Mathematics, TCC Southeast
  • 2010: Elise Ann Price, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, TCC Southeast
  • 2018: Murray Ablone Fortner, Department Chair and Full Professor of Psychology and Sociology, TCC Northeast