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Devotion to teaching and research, Melissa Connor, PhD, is the 2019 Distinguished Faculty

Each October, just before the pigskin and parade hoopla of Homecoming weekend kicks into high gear, Colorado Mesa University faculty, alumni and former athletes receive their due as the ‘best-of-the-best.’

A Distinguished Faculty member, two Distinguished Alumni and two Hall of Honor athletic inductees are honored at the Victory Dinner. They take their place in the pantheon of dozens of other stand-out professors, students and athletes from previous years. They are recognized for the exceptional things they have done in the fields of scholastics, business, athletics, humanitarian aid and community service. These honors don’t end with engraved plaques and photos on the walls of hallways.

The accolades are paid forward in the form of scholarships. Distinguished Alumni donate to an annual scholarship that goes to a student chosen by the Distinguished Faculty each year. The amount of that scholarship is symbolic — $1,925. That is the year CMU was established as a junior college. The scholarship rewards deserving students and may be expanded in coming years.

The three awards give the university a chance to highlight exceptional graduates as well as put a spotlight on stand-out faculty members who have helped propel students to noteworthy accomplishments.

To put it simply, Melissa Connor is an expert in dead bodies.

This unusual forensic-science skill has taken her from the Little Bighorn battlefield to hurricane-devastated Haiti and war-torn Rwanda. She has helped to unearth mass graves, to search for missing persons and to identify remains of decedents for families.

Connor, PhD, professor of forensic anthropology, now oversees the university’s Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS). This facility used for the study of body decomposition has helped to put the university on the map as an institution capable of serious forensic research.

Connor’s devotion to teaching and to continuing research in her field of study has led to her being named CMU’s 2019 Distinguished Faculty.

“Research is becoming a more and more important part of undergraduate academia, and I think people want to see that,” said Connor about her selection as Distinguished Faculty. "And maybe it’s my publishing record.”

Connor has authored or co-authored three books. She has published 27 peer-reviewed journal articles, 15 abstracts, 32 forensic technical reports, five newsletter articles and 10 major archeology technical reports.

She began her career with the National Park Service’s Midwest Archaeological Center. As an archeologist, she was tasked with identifying cultural resources at a number of parks. While working with soldiers’ remains at the Little Bighorn National Monument in Montana, she worked with an individual who also worked with Physicians for Human Rights. That led to her working on projects around the world with the group.

She eventually returned to academia and earned a PhD in geography and anthropology. She said she was drawn to CMU when the university created its research facility to study body decay in high-altitude, arid climates. She now administers the facility and teaches while continuing to conduct research, and serves as a consultant for law enforcement agencies. 

How many years at CMU: 7
Most memorable book:
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Hobbies: Reading, eating well and learning enough about cooking to eat well
- Navigating step-parenthood for more than 30 years, Connor is still married and “everyone still talks to me."
- She has been part of the educational trajectory for hundreds, if not thousands, of students.
- During her work with the National Park Service, she was part of the bureaucracy that helped preserve the cultural and natural resources integral to this country’s identity.
- During her work overseas, she helped to recover thousands of bodies that (mostly) were returned to families. This work brought attention to some very evil acts and helped put some horrid people in jail.


Distinguished Faculty is a peer honor chosen by a secret committee that is put together each year by the faculty senate. The committee is kept secret so that this award does not become a popularity contest. Recommendations for nominees come from fellow faculty members. The choices are based on scholarship, service to the university and the wider community, and teaching skills. It is highly competitive, according to Vice President of Academic Affairs Kurt Haas, and is growing as CMU adds more and more stand-out professors.


Written by Nancy Lofholm