Matthew Sparke sits at the head of a table in a first-floor classroom in the University of Washington’s Smith Hall on a May afternoon and asks the 15 students before him to contemplate a thought-provoking question: Why would an antipoverty project in Africa feel the need to trademark its work?

“Are you afraid someone might steal it?” the red-haired, British-born professor asks with a wry chuckle. Sparke, the winner of a 2007 distinguished teaching award from the University of Washington, displays humor and a boyish sincerity when engaging with his students.

Like many professors, he uses academic jargon like “meta-discourse” and “spatial selectivity,” but he’s otherwise lacking in airs, Seattle Weekly reports. It’s perhaps one lasting effect of being told at age 11, after failing a critical test then given in Britain, that he had no academic future. He went on to Oxford University anyway.

There’s a pause while the bright-eyed, 20-something seniors, who signed up for this “global health and philanthrocapitalism” class as part of their studies in the prestigious Jackson School of International Studies, consider the question, which is directed at an enterprise called the Millenium Villages Project. “You don’t want somebody to use the name and then mess it up,” ventures a young man.

“Ah-ha,” Sparke says. “So what does that tell you about his vision?” he asks, referring to Millenium Villages’ founder Jeffrey Sachs. The geography professor goes on to mention that Sachs seems to have an ego, and prompts the class to mull over whether today’s philanthropists are like the “charismatic leaders” of old, deriving their power from an image of godlike “beneficence.”

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