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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Unconventional Wisdom

The new James B. Knapp Dean has made a career of realizing opportunities across departmental divisions and bureaucratic barriers, a perspective she now brings to bear on the future of the School of Arts and Sciences.

Photo: Will Kirk/


Within the generally buttoned-down world of university administration, Katherine Newman stands out. Relaxed and accessible, the new James B. Knapp Dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences brims with enthusiasm and undisguised pleasure at the opportunities and the challenges of her new job.

"It's the rare, privileged person like me who gets to do something she loves to do for a living," enthuses Newman, who assumed the deanship Sept. 1.

Over the last 30 years, as Newman has moved from Berkeley to Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and now Hopkins, she has burnished her reputation as a scholar, teacher, administrator, and mentor. Honored for her scholarship in sociology and anthropology, she has written or co-authored 10 books that range from considering the lives of the near poor to studying small-town communities in which mass school shootings have occurred. An upcoming book looks at the worldwide trend of adult children returning to live with their parents.

Meanwhile, she has demonstrated her skills at administration by building joint degree and interdisciplinary programs. At Harvard, she designed a university-wide research program in the social sciences, bringing together faculty from arts and sciences, public health, medicine, law, and education to collaborate on new areas of scholarship.

"Fundamentally what
I'm about is knocking
down structural barriers
that make it difficult for faculty to collaborate when they already wanted to,"
says Newman.

At Princeton she founded the university's joint doctoral program in social policy, sociology, politics, and psychology. She also led Princeton's Institute for International and Regional Studies, which brought separate programs in international and regional studies into constant interaction with one another.

In June, she traveled to China, India, South Korea, Vietnam, and Turkey to visit undergraduate seminar programs she created at Princeton to expose students to the history and culture of these regions. This effort reflects her commitment to developing the interests and talents of individual students, says Johns Hopkins provost Lloyd Minor.

Dean Newman now brings her own distinctive brand of abilities and leadership to strengthen and improve the School of Arts and Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University.

Her goal: to promote Johns Hopkins' excellence in research and graduate education while focusing further attention on undergraduates. Specifically, Newman wants to improve the student-faculty ratio and develop a more balanced student population by attracting more students devoted to the humanities and some social sciences, making Hopkins a "destination of choice" for undergraduates whose enthusiasm for such fields knows no bounds. "History, English, classics...what I would like to see is that these classes are filled up with students for whom this is their desperate passion in life," she says.

Newman also has ideas about making the arts more visible on the Homewood campus (perhaps through collaborations with Peabody), capitalizing on the university's proximity to Washington, D.C., and even creating entirely new fields of study. She's quick to point out that the school's faculty members will be the ones who define the process of curricular change in the months ahead. "Fundamentally what I'm about is knocking down structural barriers that make it difficult for faculty to collaborate when they already wanted to," she says.

"I want everyone to think of my home as a people's house," says Newman, who is playing dinner host to some 800 students this year.

Photo: Will Kirk/


Outside the classroom, the new dean wants to give undergraduates more one-on-one time with their professors and help them feel a greater sense of community. Toward that end, she has chosen a home steps from campus, on North Charles Street, and has already opened it up to students and faculty through two dinner-and-discussion series: the Zelicof Family Dinners with the Dean and the Four Course Dinners program.

The Four Course program, now in its third year of existence (but its first in the dean's home) drew 75 undergraduates to her home for casual conversation with faculty during a week in early September. The discussion menu was, by design, heavy on the humanities, with noncredit offerings on the Bible, Yiddish humor, and European film--and the guest list included students from both Arts and Sciences and the Whiting School of Engineering. The Zelicof dinners--which, like the Four Course Dinners, are funded by Caren Zelicof '86--are new this year, offerings students and their professors a chance to come together outside the classroom.

Hosting both dinner series means Newman will welcome some 800 undergraduates to her home this academic year. Says Newman: "I want everyone to think of my home as a people's house."

After dean Adam Falk resigned to become president of Williams College, Katherine Newman became the first woman appointed to the position at Hopkins. It's another milestone for a scholar who has crafted her career by seeing beyond academic conventions, institutional barriers, and popular wisdom, her colleagues say.

Her own resume reflects her belief in the power of interdisciplinary scholarship. Although Newman received her doctorate in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley (not far from where she grew up, in Palo Alto), she has made a name for herself as a sociologist--one who uses anthropological methods in her research. During her early years at Columbia University, she began involving graduate students as her researchers and co-authors, a scholarly approach used more often by natural scientists, colleagues note.

Then there's her ability to bring people from different disciplines together to create new programs. Theda Skocpol, professor of government and former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, says Newman assembled a team of political scientists and sociologists by working across school lines and bureaucratic hurdles--a task that "isn't easy at Harvard."

"Kathy had the sense of something that would appeal to a group of colleagues and put in the energy to make it happen. It took a couple of years, which is actually lightning speed," Skocpol says.

Newman's family: Husband, Paul Attewell, and son, David, in Paris during David's study abroad; and son, Steven, a graduate student in history at UC Santa Barbara.

Underpinning Newman's efforts is her long marriage to sociologist Paul Attewell, a professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center who specializes in the sociology of higher education. The couple, who met when they were both students at the University of California at San Diego (where Newman earned her bachelor's degree), have an unusual commuter marriage.

"In the 37 years we've been together, we've only ever taught in the same city, New York, for five years," Newman says. "We've never taught in the same institution. That could change, but we're pretty used to it."

They have also raised two children. Their older son, Steven, is pursuing his doctorate in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, while David will graduate next spring from Tufts with a degree in international relations.

Then there's the matter of what admirers describe as her "tireless," "prodigious," "force-of-nature," "propulsive" energy; many mention her 2 a.m. e-mails.

"Without Kathy, Princeton would not have these global seminars because many of us thought that this was too big a project to be implemented," says Sukru Hanioglu, chair of Princeton's Near Eastern Studies Department, who also directs the summer course in Turkey. "She works relentlessly to realize her vision."

The dean's energy comes from dedication to her ideals of service, says Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.

"It sounds trite, but Kathy's committed to making a difference," she says. "She's very deeply motivated by doing what she can through her writing and teaching and also through organizing--in the sense of administrating and creating."

Since the early days of her career, Newman has documented the realities of poverty in America, showing how economic inequalities are more complex than pundits assume. One of her best-known areas of scholarship is the "near poor," the roughly 50 million Americans who earn $20,000 to $40,000 a year and are one paycheck or divorce away from poverty. She has received critical praise for illuminating the life of fast-food workers in Harlem, of elderly people living in the inner city, of air traffic controllers fired by Ronald Reagan, of people who have fallen from the middle class.

Much of her passion for these subjects comes from her family's own experience with joblessness and downward mobility. Her grandfather, who worked for 30 years as a traveling salesman, "lost his center of gravity, his feeling of worth" when he was fired following the sale of his company. Then, when she was a teenager, her father lost his job. Employed as an engineer in Palo Alto, the World War II veteran fell victim to what Newman calls a "catastrophic" economic downturn that ravaged the aerospace industry.

Because her father was unable to find another job in his field, Newman began contributing to the household income after graduating from high school. The oldest of four children, she continued to help out her family financially while working to put herself through college at the University of California, San Diego.

Her scholarly research challenges societal assumptions that willpower, determination, and character are responsible for economic success.

"Americans still tend to think that people are masters of their own destinies," she says. "In my research I saw, and continue to see, a lot of capable people buffeted by winds that are stronger than any individual can possibly withstand.

"When I saw somebody of great talent lose everything, it not only informed my scholarship but also gave me deep appreciation for one of my fundamental beliefs: Being able to work for a living is absolutely essential to an honored adulthood in the United States. There is no substitute for it."

Hopkins sociology professor Andrew Cherlin says Falling from Grace: The Experience of Downward Mobility in the American Middle Class, Newman's landmark study, seems as fresh today as when it was first published in 1988.

"It's very pertinent to the current economic troubles of the Great Recession," he says, also praising No Shame in My Game, her award-winning book about the struggles of low-wage workers. "There's a lot of attention paid to the non-working poor, but the majority of poor are working, and Katherine's work tells us a lot about their lives."

Such scholarly reporting isn't sufficient for Newman, Slaughter observes. "Kathy knows it's not enough to publish a book. You have to create a group of scholars, and an intellectual home, and a focus that will create a stream of people studying these issues and putting their knowledge into the public sphere.

"One of her biggest achievements at Harvard and Princeton was to create PhD programs that would be top of the line academically, but would also attract young scholars into studying important social issues ... and setting the policy implications," she says.

Over the years, Newman has appeared regularly on scores of national and local television shows--she has been interviewed by Bill Moyers and Oprah--as well as on public and commercial radio stations. Excerpts from her research have run in most major newspapers and such magazines as The New Yorker and Business Week.

In 2007, Senator John Edwards wrote the forward to The Missing Class: The Near Poor Experience in Modern America, the book she co-authored with Victor Tan Chen.

Newman describes herself as a public scholar, one who is "policy-relevant."

"I try to write for publications like The Nation or The Chronicle of Higher Education or The New York Times because I think scholars who do this kind of work have an obligation to share it with a country that has made this very rarified kind of work possible," she says. "What authorizes me to pick up my paycheck is that I think I have something to say that matters to ordinary people, that helps them understand the trends that crash down on them and what we might do about it--about how we might do a better job."

Of Newman's many academic honors, Harvard's Graduate School Council Award for Excellence in Mentoring reflects one of her most fervent constituencies: former graduate students who hold faculty positions in universities around the country. When these young scholars see one another at conferences, they often share stories of Newman's legendary line editing, her pep talks, and the way she continues to advise them about research, publishing, and jobs.

Tomas Jimenez, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford with whom Newman worked at Harvard, calls her the Michael Jordan of academia. "There's no weakness in her game. If being an academic means research, teaching, mentorship, and administrative work, she's phenomenal at all," he says.

As a former athlete, he also considers her one of his best coaches. "You walk out of her office feeling like you can walk through walls. She's an incredible motivator, but none of it is fluff."

Mentoring is one of the academic roles Newman takes most seriously. "I've been privileged to get to know and to train several generations of extremely talented young scholars," she says. "I think that's been the greatest privilege of my career."

She says her own mentor, the late sociologist Phillip Selznick, set the bar high.

"I brought a fair amount of discipline and talent to my work as a young scholar, but that is just a necessary condition. It is not a sufficient condition," she says. "The sufficient conditions are all of those people who line up behind you and recognize something in you and foster you, help you, read your work, criticize it, and stick with you through all the ups and downs that persist in every career. That's what Philip Selznick was to me. I believe you pass it forward--as will my students to theirs. It's an intergenerational nurturing."

When Hopkins president Ronald J. Daniels introduced the dean-designate to the faculty last April, she assured the audience of her vitality and readiness for the job.

"I think you will find me a high-energy partner, someone who looks forward to meeting every last one of you," Newman told them. "I figure with 275 faculty members in Arts and Sciences, it should take about a year of lunches."

Her pledge makes sense to Cherlin. "Anthropologists are people persons. They tend to enjoy meeting new people, getting to know them and figuring them out--that's what they do for a living," he says. "I think Katherine will do some internal anthropology."

Yale professor Kathryn Dudley, Newman's first anthropology graduate student at Columbia, sees similarities between her mentor's approach to scholarly and administrative challenges.

"Writing a good ethnography requires talking to scores of people who try to tell you what is important and meaningful to them. You identify and articulate it with them, but also for them. You don't put words in their mouth, you don't produce something they couldn't have thought of themselves, but you synthesize it. And you present it back in a way that they say, 'Yes. That's what we thought, that's what we meant!'"

Such processes help Newman identify what she needs to do to move an institution forward.

"I do have boundless energy, and I don't sleep a lot," she says. "But if this process at Hopkins was just about me being energetic, it would fail. It's working because there is already this desire to see the change happen. If anything, there's this thunderous enthusiasm for looking at things in new ways."



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