Alan Jones: Setting Minds in Motion

Professor Alan Jones’ legacy at Pitzer could be summed up in a litany of college-wide accomplishments: facilitating the founding of the intercollegiate neuroscience program, the Pitzer in Ontario program and the Community Engagement Center—just to name a few. But the professor of psychology and neuroscience, who served as Pitzer’s dean of faculty for 11 years, doesn’t cite institutional entities when asked about his 30-year career at Pitzer.

“The legacy is the students,” Jones says. “The legacy is what they took away and what we learned together in the classroom. There’s nothing carved in stone that will last. The question is, ‘How do you set things in motion?’”

For Charles R. Martinez ’91, Jones helped set the future in motion. Now a professor of education and a department head at the University of Oregon, Martinez calls Jones “a seismic influence.”

“He catalyzed my love of teaching,” Martinez says. “He cared so deeply about what he was doing, you couldn’t help but go along with him.”

A first-generation college student when he arrived at Pitzer, Martinez took a transcript’s worth of classes with Jones, who he credits as “one of my very first role models in higher education.”

“He just didn’t help me develop the skills, he helped me develop the confidence in my emerging image of myself as a scientist and a scholar,” Martinez says.

Jones set things in motion for the College as a whole as well. Shortly after he arrived at Pitzer in 1986, he gathered a group of professors who secured funding from the National Science Foundation and established the 5C-wide neuroscience program. “I thought, ‘Oh, if that’s possible, all sorts of other things are possible,’” Jones says.

Jones found in Pitzer a like-minded college, interdisciplinary to its core and open to educational experimentation. He taught classes on the foundations of neuroscience as well as courses on gender and sexuality, the biological basis of behavior and the chemical component of perception. His fundamental fascination with how people come to be who they are ultimately led him into the field of epigenetics, the study of environmental factors’ impact on genetic expression.

Jones says when he came to Pitzer, he never thought he would be dean of faculty, much less the longest serving one in the College’s history. But Pitzer’s openness to academic inspiration persuaded him to accept the position and become “a very, very interesting and creative dean,” in the words of Professor Emerita Judith V. Grabiner. As dean, Jones played a pivotal role in establishing many of Pitzer’s most innovative programs, including the Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology in Costa Rica and the Vaccine Development Institute’s partnership with the University of Botswana.

Jones could have retired when he stepped down as dean in 2012, but he wanted to spend his last four years as a professor without any agenda “other than to teach a really good course.”

Looking back over his career, the man who grew up in a Northeastern mill town and studied the genetic scars of forced starvation during World War II says the great glory of teaching is that “there’s such hopefulness to it.”

“Eighteen-year-olds are so optimistic about the world, and they should be—they have such agency to make a difference,” Jones says. “I’ve always liked the idea that, as a teacher, you can change people for the rest of their lives.”

For Andrew R. Harrison ’89, Jones’ psychobiology course changed his understanding of how vision works, and ultimately the focus of his academic career. Today, Harrison is an associate professor of ophthalmology and visual neurosciences at the University of Minnesota, where he also serves as the director of Ophthalmic Plastic and Orbital Surgery Service. “Alan taught me how to think and question in research,” Harrison says. “My experience with Alan at Pitzer really paved the way for my entire career.”