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Founding dean of Barrett leaves legacy of excellence

Ted Humphrey
October 23, 2014

Ted Humphrey considers himself a lucky man.

“I am among the most fortunate of people. I have been able to spend the majority of my time at ASU doing what I love,” he says.

Humphrey came to ASU in 1966, just eight years after the institution received state university status. He chaired ASU’s Philosophy Department from 1974-1983, guided a small honors program to the largest honors college in the nation, and served as Barrett Honors College dean for 15 years.

As he contemplates his retirement – officially set for May 2015 after a multi-year phased reduction in duties – Humphrey looks back on his time at the university as one of change, growth and opportunity.

“When I chaired the philosophy department I had the opportunity to make significant faculty appointments and build a great department,” he said.

It was also as chair of the philosophy department that Humphrey directed a fledgling honors program.

“We had an honors program that hadn’t yet caught fire, but about a year after I was there I became program director and took the dean a plan for growing it and he supported it. Then I took it to the provost and he endorsed it. After that it was supported by everyone, and no one ever said ‘We can’t do this,’” he said.

While there were questions about how the honors program would grow, how it would be financed and how it would be staffed, the idea of pushing the program farther and guiding it to collegiate status “never faced steadfast resistance,” he said.

The real challenge in the early going was how to obtain adequate financing and helping spread understanding of how an honors program could evolve into something larger and still fit into the university’s existing structure, he added.

“One had to keep one’s eyes on the ultimate goal and one’s shoulder pressed against the wheel. Sometimes I felt like a very small tugboat against a very large ocean,” he said. “We had to find a way to provide high-achieving students the resources by which they would find opportunity. That is what we were focused on.”

Humphrey, along with supporters of the honors college concept, weathered the swells and in 1988, with Arizona Board of Regents approval, the honors program became a college within ASU, with Humphrey as founding dean.

Under Humphrey’s leadership, the honors college received a $10 million endowment from Craig and Barbara Barrett and was named Barrett, the Honors College at ASU. It is now the largest honors college in the nation, with enrollment topping 5,000.

He served as dean of the honors college until 2003, when he turned over the reins to current dean Mark Jacobs.

“Ted Humphrey’s vision founded Barrett and provided its core traits and structure. He has given an immense gift to ASU and to the national honors community,” Jacobs said.

Humphrey said his move from dean back to faculty member was based primarily on a desire to have more time to teach.

“I looked at what gave me joy, and it was being with students. I wanted to resume my role as a teaching faculty member and researcher and become a productive scholar.” And that’s just what he did – teaching Barrett’s signature course The Human Event, researching Latin American intellectual history and producing four books with Barrett colleague Janet Burke. Humphrey and Burke are currently collaborating on their fifth book. He was also tapped by former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to work on a biography.

Peggy Nelson, Barrett vice dean, said Humphrey’s influence on the college is apparent in its students.

“Dean Humphrey has had an inspiring career molding Barrett Honors College and engaging with students. I have witnessed directly his tremendous impact on students’ lives. He connects with them as individuals and gives his time and energy to support their growth and success,” she said.

As his retirement nears, Humphrey reflects on the quality of the college he was instrumental in establishing. Since its inception, the honors college has attracted the brightest students from throughout the nation and beyond, including hundreds of national scholars. Honors students routinely win national and international scholarships, such as Fulbright, Boren, Killam and Rhodes awards, receive admission to prestigious graduate programs, and move on to impressive careers.

“We’ve been able to enhance the reputation of ASU. To a large degree, it has been Barrett students who have led the way in competing for significant national and international scholarships, but these awards are accepted in the name of ASU, not just Barrett,” he said.

“What I have enjoyed about being at ASU is how open an environment one finds here. An environment that if one has an idea, if one wants to make a contribution, social and class barriers aren’t in the way. If one has something to contribute, in my opinion, the institution is prepared to consider and accept them.”

By any standard, Humphrey has made invaluable contributions to the university. In addition to his work, he has established a scholarship in support of first-time freshmen honors students. But he is most proud of his work with students, and hopeful he has had a positive influence.

“My mother was a registered nurse and my father was a heavy duty mechanic. I was the first in my family to go to college. Look at the kind of life I have had. I have been fortunate to pursue education, to teach, to produce work that I’m proud of,” he said.

“I hope that through my work with students I have inspired them to have great and productive lives.”

For more information about Ted Humphrey’s retirement celebration on Oct. 31 and to RSVP, contact Lexi Killoren at or 480-727-2410.