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President’s Professor: Ted Humphrey

March 23, 2007

With his carefully trimmed beard, his cultured, booming voice and his tailored sport coat, Ted Humphrey might appear to be an old-school professor from the Ivy League – someone who’s most comfortable lecturing students from a podium.

Central casting impressions aside, nothing could be further from the truth.

As one of three exceptional faculty members named this spring as a President’s Professor, Humphrey is known on campus for drawing out his students’ opinions on thorny subjects, and teaching them to think and write critically.

Humphrey, a philosophy professor, is a skillful navigator who encourages discussion and gently leads students to peel back the layers to reach their own conclusions.

As the founding dean of Barrett, the Honors College, however, his impact is broader. Humphrey has influenced honors education throughout the United States, creating a model for a public university honors college that continues to be widely studied and emulated.

When Barrett was founded in 1988, there were about five honors colleges in the country, all taking different forms. Humphrey helped create a college from scratch that would fit within a large public university, offering a rigorous core curriculum, summer study abroad, undergraduate research and wide-ranging internship opportunities. He hired lecturers known for their teaching ability and knowledge of the humanities, to supplement the crucial involvement of research-oriented, tenure-track faculty.

The following year, Humphrey became president of the National Collegiate Honors Council, helping create standards for the 150 or so honors colleges that now exist.

Today, Barrett is a shining star in ASU’s recruitment portfolio, a model that has drawn visits from dozens of college representatives around the country and was named “Best Honors College” by Reader’s Digest in 2005. Barrett is a force that has shaped the student body, helping ASU enroll 440 National Merit Scholars by 2003, and more than 600 by 2006. ASU had two dozen 15 years ago.

Ready to return to the classroom, Humphrey stepped down as dean in 2003 to become Barrett Professor and Lincoln Professor of Ethics. He credits Mark Jacobs, who came from Swarthmore that year to become Barrett dean, with taking the college to a new level of excellence.

But he remembers the beginning of his own college education as a freshman at Berkeley. As a top scholarship student from a small town, he was unprepared – and overwhelmed – by the large classes, and he transferred mid-year to the University of California-Riverside. He noticed students who were struggling similarly at ASU.

“In the 1980s, about three-quarters of top Arizona high school graduates went out of state, and most who did stay in state went to the University of Arizona,” he says. “Those who did enroll at ASU were largely from small towns. They had adjustment problems, and we didn’t have devices to support them, so retention was poor. It was a huge problem for the state. We had to start focusing on keeping our best and our brightest at home.”

He notes with pride the strides ASU has made in recruiting and retaining top Arizona students, largely through the nurturing and attention of the Honors College. Today, almost three-quarters of top Arizona students enroll at ASU, usually at Barrett. The college also is a big draw for nonresident scholars, who tend to stay in Arizona after graduation.

“At ASU, we have the rich resources of a large university combined with the guidance and attention of a very involved faculty and staff at Barrett,” Humphrey says. “An honors college is ultimately dependent on the quality of the university in which it resides. At ASU, the research opportunities are expanding so much, there’s a lot of room for promising undergraduates.”

At 66, Humphrey says he is now in the busiest time of his career, having completed a year’s leave of absence in Latin America to develop fluency in Spanish and having published a new book. An expert on the philosopher Immanuel Kant, he has moved in a new direction with “Nineteenth-Century Nation Building and the Latin American Intellectual Tradition,” an anthology of previously untranslated Latin-American public philosophers who shaped thinking on republican life. With co-editor Janet Burke, associate dean of the college, he is preparing two companion volumes.

He derives the most joy, however, from his return to teaching undergraduates, where he sets a rule for himself of talking just 10 minutes in a 75-minute class period. His classroom is a place where everyone is respected, he says, and where young students can express views about delicate issues in a risk-free environment. The students thrive on his enthusiasm and on the challenge he presents.

“Professor Humphrey exhibits an uncommon devotion to his students, and a determination to see that we leave his courses feeling that we’ve grown in the capacity to produce and discuss high-quality academic work,” says Ryan Sandell, junior in philosophy and music. “He demands much of his students, but no less of himself. His detailed commentary and analysis of student papers are almost superhuman.”

Bobby Iovtchev, junior in creative writing and finance, is lyrical in his praise and admiration.

“Dr. Humphrey gently kindles a fire under you until you find yourself anticipating the next lecture, discussing his class over a cup of coffee with your classmates,” Iovtchev says. “Discussions carry through to the party on Saturday night, or the midnight breakfast at IHOP. Don’t ask me how he does it. It’s pure magic, as far as I’m concerned.”

Students find his love of learning contagious, and his encouragement inspires them to stretch their wings.

“He listens to students in a way most teachers do not,” says philosophy freshman Marissa Daley. “He seems to value our opinions and thoughts and isn’t afraid to admit when he is wrong.”

With his trademark deep laughter, Humphrey leans back in his chair and says showing human fallibility is part of good teaching. The brightest students often are perfectionists, having the least confidence in themselves, after all. He understands their struggle.