Renowned philanthropist, political activist and speech-language pathologist Dr. Marsha Zlatin Laufer, B.A. '64, a recipient of BSOS’s Distinguished Alumna Award, has made a career out of making a difference.
A graduate of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences (HESP), Dr. Laufer went on to earn a Ph.D. in speech-language pathology from Northwestern University. She then conducted research and taught at Purdue University. While teaching at Stony Brook University, State University of New York, she also was in private practice as a speech-language pathologist. In 2000 she began to shift her focus to political activism and to philanthropy.
While Dr. Laufer’s personal and career paths have taken her many places, she has always sought to make a difference and to improve the human condition—a priority she shares with BSOS.
Dr. Laufer said she was impressed by HESP’s updated facilities on a recent visit to campus—especially to someone who had graduated from the program in the 1960s, when HESP was located in Woods Hall. “The program when I was there seemed nascent compared with what is there today. There were 13 in my graduating class, with a very small faculty. Now, there are hundreds of students and a large faculty, and the technological developments are remarkable,” she said.
Dr. Nan Bernstein Ratner, chair of the department, said it was a pleasure to welcome back an engaged alumna, noting that Dr. Laufer’s research has made a lasting impact on the field. “Our facilities have undergone major changes since Dr. Laufer did her training in Woods Hall. During her visit, we explored new computer programs for speech and language analysis that permit fast and open-access research participation by students that have replaced the slow and costly machines she used in her ground-breaking studies of infant vocalization and child speech development, which are still widely cited by those who study the roots of communicative development in typically-developing, at-risk and impaired infants and children,” Dr. Ratner said.
Dr. Laufer has shown her enthusiasm for the growth and development at UMD and BSOS with a generous contribution designated for the University and for HESP.
Dr. Laufer first became interested in the speech and hearing field in high school, when a friend gave her a copy of Charles Van Riper’s Speech Therapy: A Book of Readings. “I’ve long been interested in infancy and precursors to spoken language, development of language, and in the early detection and treatment of speech, hearing and language problems,” she said.
Upon transferring to UMD during her junior year, Dr. Laufer pursued her major in speech-language pathology, but also found time to cheer on the Terps at sporting events. During her student days, she also explored her interests in theater, film, language and the arts.
Dr. Laufer’s life-long interest in communication and human connections shines through in her advice to today’s UMD students. “Look up from your phone and make contact with people—technology is wonderful, but I am afraid that we may be losing the quality of person-to-person, real-time, face to face conversation. “I encourage students to look for new things to try and explore, to take a variety of courses and make the most of the experience. Take advantage of every opportunity. I see students here doing that already,” Dr. Laufer said, observing the UMD experience through her recent visit and through the eyes of her nephew, a current student in engineering and computer sciences. “It used to be that college students prepared for a ‘lifetime’ profession. That’s the old way. Now, it seems that college is a far more flexible experience overall, and students are ready for two or three different paths—many are not so ‘locked in for a single lifetime career.”
Dr. Laufer has followed her own advice by forging her own path, gaining wisdom and experience from a long and established career while not being limited by professional boundaries. In addition to focusing on speech and hearing sciences both academically and as a clinical practitioner, she followed where her curiosity and interests led her—to politics and philanthropy.
Her entrée into the political arena was inspired by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In May of2000, Dr. Laufer organized a fundraiser for Clinton’s U.S. Senate race in the state of New York. “I had never met anyone like her,” Dr. Laufer said of Clinton. “She is brilliant, gracious, warm and compassionate.” Dr. Laufer worked on Clinton’s campaign in New York’s Suffolk County, a traditionally Republican-held part of the state that also was the home base of Clinton’s opponent, former U.S. Representative Rick Lazio. There, Dr. Laufer set up the first Democratic campaign headquarters on the North Shore of Long Island.
Ultimately, Clinton and her supporters secured an historic victory—the election marked the first time a former American first lady had run for public office, and the first time a female senator would represent the state. After the success of Clinton’s campaign, Dr. Laufer continued with her private practice but found herself drawn more and more to politics, campaigning for several Democratic candidates and a local good-government referendum before ultimately deciding to leave her practice and concentrate on political involvement full-time.
She was elected to chair New York’s Brookhaven Democratic Committee and served as its chairwoman for eight years. While it was challenging to build the Democratic Party in a primarily Republican region, Dr. Laufer and her collaborators were highly effective, increasing the party’s registration in the area by 32%, securing the first Town Board majority in more than 30 years, and winning numerous town-wide elections. Through local activism and as a member of the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, Dr. Laufer worked to recruit and empower qualified women to run for political office.
While she recognizes that many BSOS students are politically minded and take advantage of their proximity to Washington, D.C., she urges them to become active and aware of politics at every level. “I urge young people to pay attention to politics not just in federal government focusing only on presidential races,” she said. “There is also a critical need for awareness and activism at state, county, town, and local levels as well. These elected individuals are all making decisions that affect each of us every day and all of us should have a say with our votes and our voices in who those representatives are.”