Allen Austill

Category : Education, People

Allen Austill, circa 1964. The New School photograph collection. New School Archives and Special Collections.


Author: Carmen Hendershott, Librarian, The New School

I never had the pleasure of knowing Allen Austill directly. I heard him spoken of by others, usually in high praise. When I attended a memorial service of a long-time member of the New School community at which he was also present, and saw him chatting in the hall with colleagues, someone else, looking at this scene, said to me, “This event brought out the Old New School people.” And it certainly did. So when his family sent news of his death to the school recently, I was reminded of the widespread affection and respect he enjoyed, and thought I would like to know more about him.

The picture that emerged was that of a man who not only made many valuable contributions to the New School during his career here, but also of a man who learned from both successful and unsuccessful outcomes, so that by the time the New School hired him, he was a very seasoned administrator. Several circumstances contributed to this: the type of childhood he had, the university he attended, his army experience, and the nature of his duties in jobs he held at the outset of his career.

In his childhood, Austill moved around nearly as often as children of military men. His father was a Massachusetts-based Methodist minister whose superiors allotted him three years in any given post; then he would be assigned to a different church in a different community.  So he did not get a sense of home as a physical place with continuity, since the places were always changing, and, with those changes, came the need to adapt to new schools, new classmates, new teachers, and new neighborhoods. He was a P.K. (preacher’s kid) who, to judge by his later life, developed well-honed people skills very early on. He wound up at Wellesley High School when he was 12 or 13.[2] (In that era, children often skipped grades if they did well.)

After Wellesley, Austill went to the University of Chicago, which turned out to be a critical milestone in his life. Robert Hutchins, a champion of college education reform best-known to the general public for espousing the value of reading “great books” that represent the major achievements of Western civilization, was its president. A year into his college career, Austill was drafted into the army. Since World War II was winding down by then, he was assigned to a domestic post at the Aberdeen, MD proving grounds. He volunteered to join the medical staff there, which serviced troops returning from Germany. His post gave him time to do extensive reading of books in the literary canon promoted by the “great books” to which Hutchins was devoted. Austill then returned to the University of Chicago, where he completed his undergraduate education in 1948 and a master’s degree in 1951.[3]

In the early 1950s, Austill was invited to work as a research assistant for the Council of State Governments on a study about the aims of higher education which sparked his lasting interest in the philosophy of higher education and of education generally. With three other researchers, he published, in 1952, a book under the corporate authorship of the Council entitled Higher Education in the Forty-Eight States (available at Bobst [NYU]Library). The one course Austill taught at the New School, The Responsibility of the State, was also involved with an issue in the philosophy of education – the appropriate role of the state vis-à-vis the individual and the family in relation to education, with readings from Hutchins, John Dewey, Robert Whitehead, Bruno Bettelheim, Plato, Aristotle, and John Stuart Mill.[4]

After conducting this study, Austill worked at the University of Chicago as the director of student housing and, for two years, at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD as director of admissions and placement.[5] St. John’s was a logical next step for Austill, since it had adopted a “great books” curriculum under followers of Robert Hutchins’ educational philosophy.[6]

In 1957, Austill received an offer for a job as chief administrator of the newly-opening campus of the State University of New York at SUNY-Stony Brook, “virtually founding the school.” From the initial entering class of 157 students, there was an attrition rate of over two-thirds of the students, but Austill saw that initial class through to graduation in 1961, when between 35-40 students got their diplomas.[7]

The Ford Foundation then beckoned, offering him a 9-month job in early 1962 as an educational consultant in Jordan, as part of a dozen-person committee. The committee was asked to consider whether or not Jordan should establish a university within its borders. The committee advised against it, feeling that available monies should first go to primary grades 1-3, to widen literacy and education for young girls, and secondarily to grades 6+, with accompanying enhancement of teacher training. Shortly after Austill returned to the United States, he read in the New York Times that the Jordanian government was establishing a university anyway.[8] Though the committee he had worked with did not see its recommendations adopted, Austill got an opportunity to experience cross-cultural consulting in education.

Later that year, Austill joined the New School, where he spent the rest of his career. Initially, he was Associate Dean of the New School (what was informally called the Adult Division then) in charge of the newly-developed Office of Educational Advising.[9] According to various New School course catalogs, he filled this position from Fall 1962 through Summer 1964, followed by a post as Acting Dean of the New School from Fall 1964 through Spring 1965.[10] In Summer 1965, he became Dean of the New School, the position with which he is most-associated. He held it through Summer 1979. In Fall 1979, he was appointed to concurrent positions of Executive Dean and Vice-President of the New School, positions assigned to him through Spring 1981 and Summer 1981, respectively. He even took on a stint as Dean of the Graduate Faculty from Summer 1979 through Fall 1980. In Spring 1981, he resumed his former position as Dean of the New School and retained it through Summer 1987. His last job before his retirement was Chancellor of the University, which he held from Fall 1987 through Spring 1989.

Austill made many significant contributions to the school. He more than doubled enrollments in the Adult Division and helped foster the Institute for Retired Professionals, a community of peer-taught professional retirees, based at the New School and founded in 1962, the year he arrived.[11] His picture is recorded in a photo of attendees at James Baldwin’s lecture in May 1965, a lecture given as part of the New School-based Negro Writer’s Conference, and he served as an ex officio member of the New School Art Center Committee.[12] Austill also encouraged the growth of credit-based programs, particularly the expansion of undergraduate studies to a full-time program, called the New School College, and early support for the innovative media studies program that began in the mid-1970s.[13] Toward the end of his career as Dean, he assisted the move of the Jazz and Contemporary Music program to divisional status in Fall, 1986.[14] Under Austill, universal, humanistic themes were reflected in his encouragement of an eclectic, exciting mix of classes.

Austill’s most challenging New School moments occurred when he was appointed to head the Graduate Faculty (GF) after the departure of Dean Joseph Greenbaum in 1979. The Graduate Faculty was undergoing dramatic changes with the departures and deaths of many key senior faculty. This coincided with political pressure from New York State to close several graduate programs to prevent oversupply of new graduates on a weakening academic job market. The Middle States accrediting team had refused reaccreditation to the sociology and political science departments, and the short-staffed philosophy department was a logical next candidate. Austill stepped in, assessed departments, and solicited support from the Board of Trustees. He strengthened the psychology department so that it would be granted APA clinical accreditation; hired faculty on a firm budget line for the economics department; and reconstituted the philosophy department. For the de-accredited political science and sociology departments, he suggested consortial arrangements with other local institutions as a partial solution to their distress.[15] Ultimately, all the departments survived with accreditation restored.

To conclude: Allen Austill contributed to the expansion of the New School from two divisions in 1962, when he arrived to five in 1987, when he retired. He carried the banner for the humanities, intellectual curiosity, creative pursuit, social connectedness, and concern with civil society forward in every way available to him. He represented what was best of the Old New School.

[1] Chris Austill, e-mails, April 26, 2016 and May 24, 2016.

[2] Parsons Paper v.4 (1) October, 1979: 4.

[3] New School Bulletin [newsletter] v.20 (4) September 1-17, 1962: 3.

[4] Seminar College [Course] Catalog 1977-1979: 16.

[5] New School Bulletin 1962; Parsons Papers 1979: 4.

[6] Milton Meyer, Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993): 173.

[7] Parsons Papers: 4.

[8] Parsons Papers: 5.

[9] New School Bulletin, 1962.

[10] New School Bulletin v.22 (2) August 28, 1964: 2.

[11] Peter Rutkoff and William Scott, New School: A History of the New School for Social Research (N.Y.: The Free Press, 1986): 236, 251; West View News [online], September, 2012.

[12] New School Bulletin v.22 (18) May 14, 1965: 4 and New School Bulletin v.28 (6) February 8, 1971: 14. Austill supported the important role of the arts in the curriculum generally, writing “The New School concentrates upon two vital relationships: the connection between the creation of artistic works and the interpretation and understanding of art; and the relationship between the creative process and a free society” (quoted from Art Workshops New School Bulletin v.22 (1) August 5, 1964 [for the 1964-1965 academic year]: 4).

[13] New School Bulletin v.24 (8) March 2, 1967.

[14] John S. Wilson’s article, “Jazz College Spin Off from a N.Y. School” (Chicago Tribune, NW Edition, March 13, 1986: 9A).

[15] Dean’s Report to the Graduate Faculty, October 31, 1979 (typescript, unpublished).