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Donna H. Kerr Announces Retirement

Donna H. Kerr, Professor in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, announced her plan to retire at the end of this academic year.  Kerr obtained her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1973, after which she joined the College of Education as a faculty member. With the exception of a one-year leave at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Kerr has worked as a faculty member and a University of Washington administrator for the past 38 years. 

Of her tenure, Kerr states, “I love the university and I can’t think of an institution in society that is more important. It’s wonderful to work in an institution that has the purpose of learning, both in the sense of learning from someone else as well as learning things nobody knows. That is so exciting. It’s been an incredible honor. And I’m amazed that I’ve spent my entire career, except for one year, at the University. It’s been 38 great years.”

Holywell Music Room, Oxford University, 2 April 2011

Donna Kerr Credit: Alex Rotas Donna Kerr Credit: Alex Rotas Donna Kerr Credit: Alex Rotas Donna Kerr Credit: Alex Rotas Donna Kerr Credit: Alex Rotas Donna Kerr Credit: Alex Rotas

Though she began her undergraduate studies in nuclear physics, Kerr’s Russian language and literature courses exposed her to the humanities. As she pursued Slavic and Soviet area studies in political science, anthropology, and history courses, Kerr engaged with serious philosophical questions about the nature of knowledge. She says that her path to working in education began with a question of curriculum, mainly: “What is the nature of knowledge and how does it differ across fields?”

Kerr earned her Ph.D. at Columbia University in Philosophy and Education. Ultimately she chose to pursue a career as a philosopher in a college of education, rather than in a department of philosophy, because she "liked the tension between educational practice and philosophy." Kerr never regretted that choice, which brought her to the University of Washington.

Although she had briefly visited before, during a period of intense January rain, her visit to the University of Washington in April 1973 corresponded with the cherry blossoms and a fantastic view of Mount Rainier. “You know, this was the end of the earth at that time,” Kerr recalls. “It was the last stop before Alaska and they still had the Boeing-bust billboard that asked the last person to leave to turn out the lights."

Kerr returned to the University of Washington in 1983 after a year’s leave at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, to assume the position of Academic Vice Provost at the University of Washington.

Kerr holds this period in high regard. As she states, “One of the highlights was working with Provost George Beckmann. I just learned so much from him. He knew the university like the back of his hand and had an enviable ability to stay focused on what mattered. He would say, “I love the university” and he truly did. He was not a mentor but had a generosity of spirit that provided just what I needed for learning my way along.”

In her role as UW Vice Provost and then Dean, Kerr led the development of two new University of Washington campuses. She was tasked with recommending whether and how to expand higher education in the central Puget Sound region. From coordinating needs studies and creating policy recommendations based on data to working with community members, the media, and legislators, Kerr strove for transparency and collaboration.  Ultimately, the legislature passed a bill establishing two new campuses, which led to a quick turnaround on establishing and opening up these schools at “breakneck speed.”

“It is not often a person gets the opportunity to do something from scratch, to build new institutions from the ground up,” Kerr marvels. “When it came to having UW incubate new campuses of a somewhat different character, that was tricky. How do you do that? It was politically very, very difficult.  And still, I think that on balance we the Regents, the UW administration, and the UW faculty -- did an incredible job.”

In 1990, Kerr came back to teaching and mentoring graduate students within the College of Education. Her teaching has for the last 20 years “focused on helping students stay close to what matters to them, to what is humanly at stake.”

This spring, in her last quarter as a faculty member at the College of Education, Kerr is teaching a full-time, intensive seminar (12 credits). The students bring narratives that “have them in their grips” stories that somehow regard race, democracy, and education. They practice thinking about these stories from the perspectives of the course readings.

“They work with their own personal narratives along with the theoretical texts,” Kerr explains. “And so what they end up doing is learning each text so well that they can take the perspective of that author and go back to look at their own narratives to find something new. They produce wonderful work dissertation chapters, published articles, book ideas and the students feel supported by each other in this process.”  It is such work with doctoral studies that prompted the Spencer Foundation to award Kerr the prestigious Mentor Grant, which provided $50,000 to support her students.

Kerr’s research over the last two decades has focused on domination and acquiescence, with an aim of understanding the prospects for democracy and education. Based on this work, she was named the Distinguished Lecturer in Philosophy of Education in the American Educational Research Association in 2010 and was invited to deliver lectures in Europe during the spring of 2011. 

“I regard my keynote lecture at Oxford University to the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain as a satisfying capstone to my career as a scholar.  In it I argue that contrary to what is implied in the impressive literatures both on asymmetrical relationships and symmetrical ones, the only way one can learn to participate responsibly in symmetrical relationships here think of personal relationships of mutuality or impersonal ones of democracy -- is through asymmetrical ones of a certain sort.  It took me years to figure this out and to learn how to express it.  Obvious as it seems to me now, to get to this insight I needed to work through numerous texts in political theory and political philosophy, various theories of mind, psychoanalytic theory, the works of Toni Morrison, Vivian Paley’s classroom narratives, and other tracts on human formation.  It fascinates me that years of thinking about these matters can be summarized so succinctly.  It must be that I’m ready to move on to doing something else.”

To read testimony from some of Kerr's students, peers, and friends or to add your own, click here.

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