2009-2010

In Memoriam: John van Alstyne, Beloved Professor, Dean, and WPI Plan Founder

Known by many simply as van A, he made a profound difference in the lives of generations of students

John van Alstyne, dean emeritus of academic advising and a longtime professor of mathematics, died on April 16, 2010, in Ashville, N.C., where he had lived since 1989. Known simply as van A by generations of students, van Alstyne taught at Hamilton College, his alma mater, for 17 years before joining the WPI faculty in 1961. He had intended to stay only a year, having been offered a position at another college, but, enjoying the freedom to teach the way he wanted to, he decided to stay.

He arrived on the cusp of a period of sweeping change at the Institute that would soon embrace him. In short order, WPI's rigid approach to education began to loosen, and the faculty gained newfound influence through a nascent governance system and the introduction of tenure. But the biggest changes were yet to come.

In the mid-1960s, President Harry Storke appointed a faculty committee to suggest possible revisions to the WPI curriculum and asked van Alstyne to represent the Mathematics Department. The committee recommended a menu of innovative changes designed to attract and retain more students, including making mathematics a degree program, offering minors in the humanities, establishing a computer science department and, most controversially, making freshman drawing--a mainstay of undergraduate education at WPI since its launch in 1868--optional.

The changes passed, opening the door for the creation, in the fall of 1968, of the Faculty Planning Committee. Storke asked van Alstyne, who was then acting head of the Mathematics Department, to serve. Over the next two years, the committee forged a revolutionary approach to technological education that they called the WPI Plan. The program took the university's founding philosophy of merging theory with practice and updated it for the modern age.

The innovative and influential WPI Plan revolved around projects that required students to apply the knowledge they learned in the classroom to the solution of real-world problems. While the program has evolved over the past 40 years, the ideas at the heart of the WPI Plan remain the foundation of the university's approach to undergraduate education.

After the Plan was approved in 1970, van Alstyne decided on a career change. Recognizing that the new academic program would place a premium on top-quality student advising, he accepted an appointment as dean of academic advising. As the WPI Journal noted in 1996, he then "spent more than a decade and a half making a profound difference in the lives of hundreds of WPI students." Known as a modest and unassuming man with an endless supply of compassion and wise advice, he is remembered fondly by students whose success at WPI was predicated, in part, on van A's tireless devotion to their needs.

The depth of students' appreciation for van A was felt at Commencement in 1987. President Jon Strauss departed from the customary ritual to recognize the retiring dean. "The president's announcement that this would be van A's final Commencement as a member of the faculty inspired a standing ovation that rocked the rafters of Harrington Auditorium," the WPI Wire reported.

Van Alstyne, who won WPI's Board of Trustees Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1970, remained actively involved in education after retiring. He advised WPI student project teams in Washington, D.C., and London before retiring to North Carolina. There, he became involved with the College for Seniors as a student and teacher. He served for a time as registrar, and remained active on the faculty until a year ago.

 

April 21, 2010

 
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