She could pack Blackman Auditorium for a course on dying, build a religious studies program at a university known for practical education, and quickly diffuse the tension in a room with her unbridled laugh.
Susan Setta died on May 14 at the age of 69, after 40 years as a professor at Northeastern and 16 years as chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion.
“She put wind in the sails of all her department colleagues,” said Lori Lefkovitz, director of the Jewish Studies Program. “She wanted everyone to succeed. She was the kind of colleague who truly believed that a rising tide floats all boats.”
When Ame Wren thinks about her former professor, she sees Setta laughing with a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in one hand while gesticulating emphatically with the other.
“She was a big hand-talker—and she loved coffee,” said Wren, who graduated in 2005 with a degree in religion. “She was boisterous, loving, and fun.”
But then the images shifts. Setta is pulling a rolling suitcase across campus with the ever-present coffee when she spots Wren, shouts out her name, and gives her a big hug. The suitcase is filled with a dozen books and pages of hand-written notes Setta would soon unload onto the podium at the beginning of her upcoming class.
“She was the most captivating teacher I ever had,” said Wren. “And with an undergraduate degree and two master’s degrees, I’ve had a lot of teachers.”
As a two-time winner of the university’s Excellence in Teaching award, Setta had a well-earned reputations for inspiring students.
“She commanded a room with her infectious enthusiasm,” said Wren. “She was a human encyclopedia, yet she always kept the spotlight on the thoughts, ideas, and insights of the students.”
A lasting impact
Setta’s influence on Northeastern extended far beyond the classroom, according to Ron Sandler, current chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion.
“During her term as chair, the department doubled in both the number of students and the number of majors,” he said. “Her big legacy will be the programs that she built and the faculty she recruited.”
He credits the department’s success to Setta’s vision for how philosophy and religion can fit into a university known for its real-world approach to higher education.
“The programs she built were very much in the spirit of applied scholarship,” Sandler said. “The way she conceived religious studies was not about analyzing ancient texts, but on ‘lived’ religion—how religion is practiced in the world today. When she created the ethics minor, her goal was to draw students from every major and make it a truly interdisciplinary study.”
Setta taught courses ranging from world religion to the way the apocalypse is viewed by Jewish and Christian literature. But her most popular course focused on the meaning of death in various religious traditions. It may seem like an unlikely topic to draw hundreds of undergraduates each semester, but Setta had a unique ability to make even the grimmest subject inspiring.
“When you talk about the meaning of death, you are talking about the meaning of life,” said Sandler.
Colleagues noted Setta’s many interests beyond the university. Trained as a classical pianist, she played with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra and later served as director of her church choir.
“She could take apart a computer and put it back together again,” said professor emeritus Debra Kaufman, former sociology professor and head of the Jewish Studies program. “And when she and her husband were restoring their Victorian home, she did the electrical wiring.”
Do not go gentle into that good night
Kaufman was awed by Setta’s grace and courage during her three-year battle with cancer. When she was released from the hospital the final time, she surprised colleagues by returning to the podium rather than retire.
“She was teaching a class about dying while she was dying herself,” marveled Lefkovitz.
In the middle of the term, Kaufman got a call from Setta’s husband saying she was back in the hospital and the situation was “very dire.” Yet when Kaufman arrived, the first thing Setta did was suggest that they move to the common room.
“So she takes all her paraphernalia—all the tubes and oxygen—and we go down the hall so that I can be more comfortable. That was Susan. She was extraordinarily sensitive to others.”
During that final discussion, Setta could not contain her excitement that she had just finished an article on religious perspectives on the end of life.
“The irony was not lost on her, but she was determined to meet her 11 p.m. deadline,” recalled Kaufman. “The reason she so determined to finish was that article was written with an undergraduate. That was very important to Susan. She made a point of treating undergraduates like young scholars.”
Even in her final hours, she was thinking about others—how to make them more comfortable, and how to help them succeed.
“She had a huge personality,” said Sandler. “I know people say this type of thing all the time, but she was truly one of a kind.”