This spring marked the retirement of two of Beloit’s legendary teachers. Between them, Jerry Gustafson and Brock Spencer can claim a total of 94 years teaching at Beloit. But even that impressive metric doesn’t begin to measure the lives they’ve changed or the impact they’ve had. Beloit College Magazine sat down with them to reflect and look forward.
Jerry Gustafson’63, professor of economics, founding director of the Center for Entrepreneurship in Liberal Education at Beloit (CELEB).
Photo by Trevor Johnson.
Talk about an indelible moment (or two) at Beloit:
JG: [Sixth President] Miller Upton had an enormous impact on me as a student. I took him for one class, Organisms and Organizations, which he taught in his living room. He wanted to know where you draw the line between social organizations of ants and bees and social organizations of humans. Where is the line between instinctive belonging, which permits no freedom, and the nature of organizations as we’d like to imagine them, where the freedom and dignity of the individual is fully played out? In a way, I’ve been unwinding ideas from that course ever since. Entrepreneurship is a continuation of that because it is all about individual freedom. There was also the moment I ran into Dave Myers’49 in Pearsons Hall around 1989. He had made the first gift to Beloit in support of small business education, but I didn’t know him at the time. We talked for an hour and became fast friends and partners. Without the Myers’ generous gifts, there would be no CELEB.
Your career evolved from teaching microeconomic theory to public policy to entrepreneurship. How did you land at Beloit?
JG: I knew that I wanted to come back to Beloit to teach. I had left in 1963 for graduate school after founding and chairing the students’ academic affairs committee when we talked about the forthcoming Beloit Plan. All of a sudden the new Plan was underway, and the faculty was 33 percent new. So if you wanted to go somewhere really exciting to teach undergraduates, Beloit was it.
What are just a couple of rewarding experiences you’ve had?
JG: I think the entrepreneurship class and workshop have a substantial impact on a lot of students. But I’ve had lots of students who took very conventional paths. I’ve sent students to graduate school, especially in business and in law, but the range has been great: rabbinical school, public policy, health economics. I used to write a lot of letters of recommendation—as many as 100 between Christmas and New Year’s. I’d type out forms, and then I’d make margin notes by hand all over the page. The point was to let the graduate admission committees know you were working your butt off to convince them to accept this student. I’ve always had an impulse to promote students. Adopting the agenda of entrepreneurship education was another major step forward, and it never would have happened but for the financial support, the urging, and even the nagging of John Hughes and the Coleman Foundation. Holding their endowed chair in entrepreneurship changed my life. Another highlight was when we needed funding to continue operations at CELEB. I asked my former students to help, and they came through with more than $700,000, mostly in small gifts.
How would you describe your students?
JG: Bright, self-effacing, aggressive, alert, demanding in the classroom. At the same time, they’re almost diffident as they turn toward the outer world. For years I’ve noticed they don’t know how good they are. They tend to find out after they’ve graduated.
What should students learn at a college like Beloit?
JG: Flexibility, adaptability, character, a strong sense of their values, a strong sense of right and wrong, an understanding of how skeptical one must be because the truth is so hard to grasp. For the last 20 years, I’ve also been trying to teach self-efficacy. It’s self-confidence: the understanding that you can learn what you need to learn when you need to know it. That’s the reason I got into entrepreneurship teaching. It’s not really about business. It’s about the kinds of things that make you more effective as a person.
What do your plans look like now?
JG: I’d like to capture a little bit of the spirit and the lessons of liberal arts and entrepreneurship in a book, but I don’t know if it’s possible. Those classes have been a little bit like jazz. I know what the structure is. I know what the themes are. Around that, on a day-to-day basis, it’s highly improvised.
Kohnstamm Professor of Chemistry
Photo by Greg Anderson.
What sparked your interest in chemistry?
BS: I had an interesting chemistry course in high school and started out with it at Carleton College. As a sophomore, I took a year’s worth of economics, but it was the chemistry I kept coming back to. Since all things are made of materials, you have the ability to follow a theory into application and that puts you at an interesting point of connection between theory and practice. It’s the back and forth between theory and practice that I find fascinating.
You and several other Beloit faculty were leaders in reforming science education. What was your role?
BS: In the 1990s, science education was undergoing major changes. We were at the forefront of that but part of a much larger endeavor, so I personally and the college generally was connected nationally to a wide range of different institutions that were involved. I was the principal investigator for ChemLinks, a National Science Foundation initiative of 18 institutions that was headquartered at Beloit. We developed topically driven, context-based modules for general chemistry courses. The shift was to problem-based, inquiry-based learning: starting with questions and data and developing the concepts from there rather than starting with chapters in a book.
You were the project director for the Center for the Sciences. What was that experience like?
BS: It was the ultimate liberal arts experience because I got to learn a little bit about absolutely everything—from architectural design and pedagogy to energy and environmental issues to fundraising and community relations. My main role was to make sure that everyone who needed to talk to each other did, rather than actually doing anything myself. I took over the planning process in 1997 or 1998, and we moved into the building in the fall of 2008.
Describe Beloit when you arrived.
BS: In 1965, when I came, 30 new faculty had been hired because they were gearing up for the Beloit Plan. There was a great deal of discussion about educational philosophy and pedagogy and questioning about why we were doing what we were doing and whether it was working. The college made significant change and got national recognition as a leader in educational experimentation, which persists in many respects today. Many of the educational themes at Beloit today were apparent then.
What are your students like?
BS: It’s hard to describe them because they are individuals, and I’ve had the luxury of getting to know them individually. They tend to be engaged broadly in the process of their education. They’re not just passively coming in and collecting their degree. They are yeasty. Things bubble up.
What do you hope students have learned from you?
BS: That it’s OK to be interested and excited about things. Whether it’s engagement in intellectual and abstract concepts and theories, or technical or societal applications, that the life of the mind and the life of action are best when connected with each other.
What’s up next?
BS: This summer, I’m supervising three students doing Sustainability Fellowship projects, and I’ll teach an environmental studies course on sustainable agriculture in the fall. My connection with environmental issues and concerns is strong, and I expect that I’ll continue to offer occasional courses tied to environmental studies.
Photo by Michael Simon.
Former students who would like to wish Brock and Jerry well are invited to post to Beloit’s Facebook page.