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RETURNING TO HIS BOOTS
By Karen Wolf
L. Jackson "Jack" Newell was a few years into his deanship of the Liberal Education Program at the U when he received a peculiar phone call.
"Is this the dean of liberal education?" the woman asked.
"Yes, it is," Newell replied.
"Well, where can I find the dean of conservative education?"
Newell, now 60, chuckles as he retells the tale in his small third-floor office at the Graduate School of Education. As father of the University's Liberal Education Program and dean from 1974 to 1990 he was used to answering unusual questions from people who were puzzled by his unconventional ideas about educating undergraduates.
Newell left the dean's office just over eight years ago (like Thoreau, "I have many lives to lead," he says) to devote full time to his professorship in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy.
In December, his teaching for the U also came to an end.
Capping 25 years of service as a professor and University leader, Newell and his wife, Linda, packed up their belongings and headed off to Deep Springs, a private, liberal arts college in an isolated high desert valley of eastern California where Newell has served as president since 1995.
Though managing to hold that post and still teach Winter quarters at Utah he'd commute back to California every few weeks in his pickup truck it was time to commit solely to Deep Springs, Newell says.
"Deciding to leave the U was the hardest decision I've had to make in my professional career," he said a few days before retiring, pausing now and then to accept final term papers from bleary-eyed undergrads trickling into his office students who still managed to smile shyly and accept Newell's warm handshake and words of encouragement before, almost reluctantly, walking away.
"But," he continued, turning back to his guest, "it's the more adventurous alternative, and I think that when you're turning 60, you should be more daring, not less."
Those who have worked with and studied under Newell are familiar with the maverick's sense of adventure, both inside the classroom and out.
In 1974, fresh from an appointment at Ohio State University, Newell was asked to revamp the U's decades-old General Education program.
In addition to requiring undergraduates to take several non-major "distribution" courses, Newell proposed a new tier of "core" courses, each interdisciplinary in nature and expected, in part, to address problems of the human condition. Students had to take at least three of these classes to graduate.
The new core courses were placed under the umbrella of "liberal education," and divided, like the distribution courses, into four categories: social sciences, sciences, humanities, and fine arts. Core classes over the years included such mainstays as "Extinction and Evolution," a science class that discussed changing global environments; "Problems in Human Values," a humanities series that examined topics such as social ethics and cultural awareness; and "Master Works in the Social Sciences," which addressed thinkers from Marx to Freud. Classes were designed by the faculty and approved by a council of professors and students.
Newell also fought for and received substantive resources to fund the program and was able, as dean, to recruit teachers from every college on campus.
"It was an active program whose director had a hunting license to search for faculty talent and a budget to hire them," Newell says.
It worked. Innovative for the time, and still considered an unusual method of educating college students, Newell's ideas succeeded in capturing the spirit of higher education.
Students, he told colleagues, should be free, or "liberated," to pursue many avenues of thought. "Liberal education has to do with the way you think," he says now. "It's different than being merely Ôwell-rounded.'
"The program was quite distinctive, based on the idea of getting the best faculty teaching non-major courses. It put a noble idea right up front: We want students to think for themselves and to consider the merits of people who have ideas different from their own."
Christian Anderson BA'95 MPA'98 took several graduate classes from Newell and can attest to the professor's dedication to that philosophy.
"There was a sense that everyone was on an equal playing field, was respected, and had something valuable to contribute to the discussion," Anderson says. "We looked at things from a variety of perspectives."
As dean of liberal education, Newell worked diligently at recruiting faculty. He combed pages of grant applications to see which professors were doing innovative work, then he'd take them to lunch and ask, "Is there any way we can get a Lib. Ed. class out of your research?" His inquiries usually were met with enthusiasm.
David Chapman was a professor of geology and geophysics when Newell recruited him to serve on the liberal education council in the early 1980s.
"The council became probably the most potent force at the University for progressive, campuswide undergraduate action," says Chapman, now interim dean of the Graduate School. Newell "had the ability to draw in people around him people who were good academic citizens, who were also willing to be movers and shakers." The Newells hosted monthly social gatherings in their home for faculty from various disciplines to discuss academic issues and trends, in hopes of fostering cross-campus relationships. He created the McMurrin Distinguished Visiting Professorship, named after former U.S. Commissioner of Education and U distinguished professor of philosophy Sterling McMurrin. The honor drew world-class scholars, such as dancer Jacques d'Amboise and anthropologist Marvin Harris, to Utah one quarter each year.
And he set up the rank of University Professor, which provided opportunities for faculty to create challenging new courses and programs. Brooke Hopkins, one of the first winners, used the chance to launch the nationally acclaimed U Writing Program.
Newell, a prolific publisher of scholarly papers, was himself awarded the University Professor rank in 1991. It was one of many awards he received in his Utah career, including the Joseph Katz Award for the Advancement of Liberal Learning, the Calvin S. and Jeneal N. Hatch Prize for Teaching Excellence, the Distinguished Honors Professor award, and the Presidential Teaching Scholar appointment.
The Liberal Education program worked so well that in 1984, the U was recognized by the National Institute of Education as a model for liberal education reform. "We were the only state university on the list," Newell recalls.
Integrated, problem-based courses are a natural fit for liberal education, believes Newell, who is somewhat disappointed that nationally, academics still prize theory.
Even the University of Utah has reshaped its liberal education design, opting instead for a general education "intellectual exploration" requirement, with classes in the fine arts, humanities, social science, and physical and life sciences, plus quantitative reasoning and writing requirement courses.
Drawn largely from his upbringing "My parents had a passion for liberal learning" and his undergraduate years at Deep Springs College, Newell's take on liberal education seems almost forgotten in a time when students are demanding marketable skills as much or more than intellectual challenge and personal growth.
"The most baffling thing about American undergraduate students today is that they are not in rebellion against what they're getting. I think they're getting short-changed," says Newell, the father of four adult children.
"Students now see education as an instrumental thing, to win a job or to get into graduate school. The idea that you would have life-changing experiences as an undergraduate people have forgotten that that's possible."
Forcing faculty out of their academic comfort zones by encouraging them to teach courses that directly address the human condition benefits both teacher and student alike, Newell maintains.
Chapman, who also received the University Professor rank in 1991 and who taught liberal education courses for 23 years, agrees. The Lib. Ed. program "profoundly affected the way I viewed my own role within a much broader context of the University," he says. "Jack was critical in encouraging that."
With all that in mind, then, it's really no surprise that Newell has gravitated toward Deep Springs College.
Founded in 1917 by electric power magnate L.L. Nunn, who lived in Utah for some time, the two-year school serves only 26 students and is located 30 miles from the nearest town.
Called "one of the most selective and innovative colleges in the world" by the New York Times, Deep Springs' all-male student body is drawn from the top academic tiers of high school graduating classes both nationally and worldwide.
Students not only study the liberal arts, but help operate the ranch on which the school is located by working at least 20 hours per week. They milk cows, prepare meals, wash dishes, and mend fences. They also run the school library and post office, help select faculty, and review applications from potential Deep Springs students. Indeed, the school's three pillars academics, self-government, and labor together provide a broad educational and life-changing experience for its student body, many of whom later transfer to Ivy League schools.
"It's humbling for students who may have been at the top of their class academically to realize there are some things that are way beyond their depth," says Newell, who, as president, also works on the school's ranch. His aim, however, is to poise the college for a new century; he has already raised $10 million for that purpose.
Deep Springs "expresses my belief that education and life are intricately connected," he continues. "You need to devote your life to the service of humanity. We shouldn't be thinkers only. We must also be doers, whole people, every day of our lives."
At his retirement party, held at the Alumni House and attended by dozens of colleagues and family members, Newell's take-charge attitude about life and education was lauded by those who have worked with him.
"Jack is a person who lives the values he espouses in his classes," said longtime friend Tony Morgan, a fellow Educational Leadership and Policy faculty member and co-director of the U Educational Policy Center. "I can't think of a person I respect more than Jack Newell as a colleague, friend, and human being. It's really hard to see him go."
Then Morgan stepped aside as Newell opened his retirement gift: a size 10-pair of Hathorn work boots. Perfect for a man blazing his own trails in the classroom, on the ranch, and in the hearts and minds of his students.
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