Guyer, West to retire after this semester

By Zac Farber

When students return to classes in the fall, they can expect to see two fewer familiar faces. Philosophy professor Henry West is retiring after a 50-year teaching career and Dean of Academic Programs Ellen Guyer is retiring after 31 years at Macalester as a professor and administrator.But West and Guyer will not disappear completely; West plans to keep an office at Macalester and offer himself as a lecturer, and Guyer will be assist from afar students applying for fellowships.

In describing his career, West is cheerful and satisfied if not effusive.

“It hasn’t been anything spectacular,” he said. “It’s just been good students, good colleagues, a supporting atmosphere.

“I’ve had the opportunity to teach pretty much anything I’ve wanted to teach.”

That sort of academic freedom is important for a man who in his 43 years at Macalester has joined in student protests against the Vietnam War and taught classes on the philosophy of socialism.

The driving force in West’s career has been his interest in John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on utilitarianism and later became interested in Mill because, he said, Mill is “a well-rounded philosopher.” In the 1970s his interest in Mill grew obsessive, and he spent a stint at Oxford University reading everything he could get his hands on that Mill wrote.

He eventually became one of the world’s preeminent John Stuart Mill scholars and in addition to writing several books on Mill and utilitarianism, he wrote the Encyclopaedia Brittanica article on utilitarianism.

Colleagues, students and administrators agree that his scholarship has been supplemented by his devotion to students.

“Henry,” said Joy Laine, chair of the Philosophy department, “has been an exemplary model of how to combine excellence in teaching and scholarship with kindness and good humor.”

“Henry is one of the most unpretentious people that I know, she said, “and is passionate about philosophy. He loves to talk philosophy and students know this.”

Catherine Polta ’10 took his “Problems of Philosophy” course when she was a first-year.

“He was by far my favorite teacher of freshman year,” she said. “He’s interesting, incredibly smart, hilarious, and he always played the devil’s advocate in classroom debates.”

Provost Diane Michelfelder called West’s career “illustrious and influential.”

“He has introduced many students to the delights and challenges of philosophical thinking,” she said.

Early in his career West taught at Spelman College, a historically Black woman’s college in Atlanta, where he started a lifelong friendship with historian Howard Zinn.

In his early 30s, West came to Macalester.

He said he never intended to stay at Macalester for his whole career and he has compared it with the University of Chicago and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he spent time as a visiting professor.

He said he has stayed at Macalester because he appreciated the “fairly harmonious department atmosphere” and because he preferred the college’s position as a small school in a big city to the urban environment of the Chicago or the small-town feel of Chapel Hill.

West cautioned Macalester against the unfocused nature of interdisciplinary programs, saying that they are a method of distraction from concentrating on one field of knowledge.

“I think interdisciplinary studies are very popular with students,” he said, “but I think they can be overdone.”

After he retires, West plans to continue to continue teaching and learning.

“I’m going to be around,” he said, “I’ll have an office on campus and I’ll offer my services as a guest lecturer, but I won’t be grading papers if I can help it.”

“I plan on writing two more articles by the end of the year,” he said, “and I’d like to find out a lot of what’s been going on in science, especially science.”

Ellen Guyer started working at Macalester in 1977 as a professor in a now-defunct department that instructed students in teaching English as a second language. When the department collapsed amid restructuring shortly after Guyer came to the college, she was absorbed into the administration.

As dean of academic programs, she has gained responsibility over a mismatched variety of programs including first-year seminars, faculty training seminars, fellowships, the foreign language requirement and the Mac learning center.

Dean of Students Laurie Hamre said she often uses Guyer as an advisor and that she works with Guyer on issues of academic standing and probation.

“A test that she’s been here so long,” Hamre said, “is how her job description has grown because of her many skills.”

Hamre said Guyer’s longevity is a result of her adaptability to administrative change.

“She has historical knowledge that is very helpful,” Hamre said. “I have found her to be by far my most trusted colleague during my time here, and she’s lived through a lot of provosts, which is a lot of bosses.”

Michelfelder also complimented Guyer’s skills.

“Ellen is an exemplary citizen of the college,” she said, “and an ideal example of an administrator-mentor, who keeps student development first and foremost in her daily interactions with students.”

Guyer’s husband, Leland, has taught in the Hispanic Studies department and will enter semi-retirement after this semester.

The Guyers have bought a house in Tucson, Ariz., and will move there after this semester, Hamre said. Next semester, Guyer will ease Macalester’s adjustment her absense by helping Macalester students apply for scholarships and fellowships such as the Watson, Rhodes and Fulbright awards, Hamre said.

With Michelfelder leaving as provost after this semester, Macalester will wait for a new provost to be selected before beginning a search for Guyer’s replacement.

Guyer declined to be interviewed for this article.