July 30, 2019

The Palfrey effect

Andover's 15th head of school stepped down this summer. How has his leadership shaped PA today?
by Tracy Sweet, Allyson Irish & Nancy Jeton

How does one measure the impact of a school head? Is it faculty excellence? Strong finances? Institutional reputation? Successful new initiatives? Lived values?

For John Palfrey, all of the above apply. And then some. Palfrey took the helm seven years ago, and since then, amassed a remarkable track record—a new strategic plan, a focus on student wellness and new academic initiatives, a transformed physical campus, a historic capital campaign, and much more.

This summer, Andover’s 15th head of school concluded his successful tenure to become President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. One of the nation’s largest private charitable foundations, the MacArthur Foundation makes grants and impact investments to support nonprofits across the United States and in approximately 50 countries.

As Palfrey embarks on a new chapter, we took a cue from the history instructor’s own playbook and looked to the past to better understand what Andover can dream, do, and become.

Known as compassionate, hard-working, and optimistic, the former Harvard Law School dean reinterpreted Andover’s founding values in fresh and inspiring ways. Non sibi—a value that drew Palfrey to Andover—defined both his leadership and his expectations for the community.

Andover is a rare combination of educators, alumni, and parents – all supporting the pursuit of excellence and opening doors of opportunity to students. Palfrey’s leadership—his dedication to knowledge and goodness, rigor, and thoughtful disruption—swung those doors wide open and will have a lasting impact. This is what seven years of progress looks like.

John Palfrey leads seniors in the annual Vista Walk on the first day of classes.

LOOKING BACK TO MOVE FORWARD

With a focus on the future, the trustees selected in 2012 an accomplished change leader as Andover’s Head of School. Not yet 40 years old, John Palfrey arrived projecting forward-facing energy; he already had leadership of two start-ups (Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Digital Public Library of America) and a major institutional transformation (Harvard Law Library) to his credit.

But Palfrey brought more than ambition and skill. He also brought a deep respect for Andover’s founding values, for the school’s enduring legacy of excellence, and for the traditions passed down by his predecessors. Throughout his seven years, Palfrey consistently forged a path to the future supported by the bedrock of the past. He advanced a strategic plan that reinforced student-centered learning and led a campaign advancing knowledge and goodness and increasing endowment support for need-blind admission, all manifestations of youth from every quarter.

He supported the stewardship and digitization of the Abbot Academy archives and took care to honor Abbot in each of his commencement addresses. He made sure that the first guiding principle of the campus master plan was to “support contemporary priorities while affirming the historic character of the campus.”

Palfrey continued traditions begun by many heads before him. As did Barbara Chase, Palfrey encouraged incoming students to choose a guardian angel in Cochran Chapel and accompanied seniors on their Vista Walk on the first day of classes. Every winter he loved teasing students in anticipation of Head of School Day, proclaimed by raising his squash racquet, a successor to Chase’s field hockey stick. Following Ted Sizer’s lead, he encouraged students to walk on the grass, but only if they zig-zagged across it!

He often invoked an image of the indentations on the marble stairwell of Paresky Commons to remind students that they walk daily on steps honed by previous generations.

“We each have a role to play in the story, the history of Andover,” Palfrey said. “We can do much to change the school, but we cannot alter it completely—much as our footsteps going up the steps in Paresky cannot completely remake the marble. We must be mindful of what we do here and the effect of our choices, now and in the future.”


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In September 2012, Board of Trustees President Peter Currie ’74, P'03 welcomes John Palfrey as Andover's 15th head of school.

Trustees approved the Strategic Plan "Connecting Our Strengths" in Sept. 2014. In addition, the campus master plan, athletics facilities master plan, and climate action plan—all crafted during Palfrey's tenure—will remain guideposts for the future.

Dedication of Sykes Wellness Center with Barbara Chase and Rebecca Sykes, May 2016.

Launched Knowledge and Goodness Campaign, Sept. 2017. Kevin Olusola ’06 performs at launch event.

Students rally around the head of school with a homemade sign.

Celebrating AfLatAm's 50th anniversary in April 2018 with Hafsat Abiola ’92 and AfLatAm's first president, Willie Ivey ’68.

In September 2018, the campus quad was dedicated to Richard T. Greener, Class of 1865. One of the first African American students to graduate from Phillips Academy, Greener was the first African American graduate of Harvard College and went on to become the dean of the Howard University School of Law.

At the dedication of the new Snyder Athletics Center, January 2018.

LIGHTING THE WAY

Three typeset prints, crafted by Trustee President Peter Currie ’74, P’03 on his early 20th century press, hung on Palfrey’s office wall. They served as a daily reminder of the 30,000-foot view. Two of these prints quote the aspirations of PA’s founders on knowledge and goodness and the great end and real business of living. A third cites poet Diane Ackerman:

“Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length.”

Palfrey added depth to the geography of Andover, as he sought to interpret Andover’s founding ideals with fresh eyes. “Excellence has been redefined under John’s courageous leadership. He’s galvanized the community in ways I could never have imagined,” said Currie. “A lot of this work was rewarding and fun. It also involved taking risks.”

Consider the 2014 strategic plan, informed by reams of data and more than 50 white papers written by faculty members. What would happen when they were asked to vote the new plan up or down? Would they feel validated and heard? Consider equity and inclusion—at the heart of PA’s promise to youth from every quarter. How should Andover bring this complex and layered work to every member of the community?

Addressing difficult, sometimes divisive, issues meant being vulnerable at times. With confidence in the adults and students around him, Palfrey advanced a student-generated proposal for all-gender housing. He gave students forums in which to express frustration around racial tensions and gender-based violence. He was forthcoming with information about Andover’s past when he learned that alumni had suffered sexual abuse while students.

No matter the topic, from academics to athletics to residential life, Palfrey upheld Andover’s quest for excellence. His ultimate goal: “that every day is a better day to be an Andover student.” This authentic approach contributed to Andover’s enviable position among peer schools.

With record applications and admission yields ranging from 80 to 86 percent during his tenure, the demand for an Andover education has never been higher. With the Knowledge & Goodness Campaign rising beyond $235 million, the Palfrey era also engaged alumni and parents in the school’s success.

Every aspect of the 2014 Strategic Plan is either complete or well underway. Working with the campus community, Palfrey prioritized student health and wellness and ensured that academic life remained as rigorous as ever.

Planting seeds for new ideas and providing resources for professional growth, Palfrey also empowered the faculty to evolve the curriculum. The results included a new Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and a four-year Empathy, Balance and Inclusion program providing deeper perspectives on equity, inclusion, and personal growth.

Palfrey may have been the inspirational voice, but he also knew from the moment he accepted the gavel on Sept. 23, 2012, that he had an extraordinary community eager to partner with him. “Phillips Academy has succeeded where other promising schools have faltered because of the restlessness and ambition of its faculty, its students, and its graduates,” he said, during his investiture. “The drive and search for continuous improvement that lie near the heart of the academy's long-term effectiveness must propel us…into the next era of education.”


Palfrey set the tone for All-School Meeting in Cochran Chapel. Pictured above: Daniel James ’18.

STUDENTS, THE FIRST PRIORITY

Palfrey had a reliable litmus test to determine the best course of action: What is best for students?

Always doing right by students would remain Palfrey’s lodestar and one of the reasons why Jenny Elliott ’94, P’22 assistant head of school and dean of students, believes he was such a remarkable head of school. “At every hard moment, John always was looking for what was the right thing to do for our kids, now.”

Elliott worked alongside Palfrey in many capacities as a colleague, including coaching girls’ squash and teaching History 300. “I’d watch and learn as he stayed with a student through a difficult topic in class. He’d guide them through some uncomfortable moments, and more often than not, the student would come up with the answer,” she said. “John tapped into kids’ intellectual curiosity and drive.”

He also championed their personal growth and development. With Elliott and Linda Carter Griffith, associate head of school for equity, inclusion and wellness, engaging their teams, Andover pursued a number of initiatives with health and wellness at their core. Students and adults teamed up to offer workshops and training on topics of affirmative consent, cultural competency, and mental health. Opening in 2016, the state-of-the-art Rebecca M. Sykes Wellness Center brought together physical and psychological health services, reinforcing the school’s commitment to educate and support the whole child.

Beyond policy decisions, Palfrey was also personable and accessible. He took kids out to dinner, drove them to vote, and attended plays, concerts, and sporting events, often donning PA spirit wear. He even dusted off his old varsity football jacket for Exeter Geek Day!

Students—and parents—appreciated his authenticity.

“I greatly admire your kindness, compassion and genuine consideration for everyone at Andover and beyond,” wrote Melinda Zhang ’21. “I was surprised and touched when you remembered my name each time I saw you.”

“I’m grateful to you as a parent for allowing me to sleep at night, secure in the knowledge that you were there to keep watch over the kids and to do the right thing,” said Mela Lew ’79, P’19, ’21.

Jenny Elliott ’94, P’22, assistant head of school for residential life and dean of students, co-teaching "History 300" with Palfrey.

INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY

A historian and a hacker, equally comfortable discussing the Federalist Papers and the plight of Edward Snowden, Palfrey shone brightest when engaged intellectually. Over the last seven years, that meant co-teaching US History, designing a senior elective called “Hacking: A Course in Experiments,” and advising numerous Independent Projects. An influential national voice on the intersection of technology and education and on the lives of “digital natives,” Palfrey has spoken and published extensively on these topics.

In a letter to the faculty in 2012, he called on the community to be a leader in connected learning, a movement to prepare students for meaningful participation in an information-driven, interconnected world. What Palfrey described as “a reasoned and balanced approach to honoring tradition in building for the future” was beginning to take hold.

He issued a challenge weeks later in his inaugural address: “(we must) undertake a deeper inquiry…into the way that our jobs as teachers are changing in our increasingly global and technological age…Any institution that ignores these drivers, as complex and multi-edged as they are, does so at its peril. Above all, though, our reasoning should not be institutional survival; we ought to take up this inquiry because it is the right thing to do for our students.”

Connected learning was not a new concept, but by reshaping how Andover would approach the evolution of teaching, Palfrey amplified opportunities for intellectual exchange, resulting in new programs across and beyond campus.

The Tang Institute was established in 2014, born from Palfrey’s vision and funded by the generosity of donors, including Currie and his predecessor as board president, Oscar Tang ’56. Andover’s ideas lab for education, the Tang Institute has supported more than 40 faculty fellows and engaged with entities like Khan Academy, Lawrence public schools, and TEDx. It also spawned more than 20 Learning in the World programs and EduCompass, a testing and practice platform used by PA and other secondary schools.

Students described Palfrey as a role model, pensive and curious, demanding yet empathetic. “A teacher on my Mount Rushmore of teachers,” said Anthony Redfern ’18.

A student in Palfrey’s “hacking” class, Gabrielle Fisher ’13 went on to earn undergrad and graduate degrees in computer science from Stanford and works in network security. She continues to apply lessons learned in that course.

“The topics we discussed had no clear answers and often were based on developing news events,” Fisher said. “We had to be limber with our analysis and empathetic to the views of all stakeholders. I tap into that mindset a lot, working in R&D to design security protocols.”

Fisher and classmate MJ Engel ’13 reflected on the lasting effects of that unconventional class, held in the sun room of Phelps House with about a dozen fellow seniors: “Fundamentally, John taught us how the hacking ethos offers an inquisitive, collaborative, and generative orientation to the world—one that must be managed with great responsibility.”

LEADING BY EXAMPLE

At its core, Andover is a high school, with active, curious, boundary-testing teenagers looking to adults for guidance. Living on campus, coaching and teaching students, and visiting with alumni and parents around the world, Palfrey never lost sight of his responsibility to lead by example.

So when the Head of School encouraged 1,150 kids to write notes home to their parents, he shared with them that 30 years ago, as an Exeter student, he had developed a habit of sending daily postcards home. When he initiated a student sleep challenge in the fall of 2015, he managed a few more hours of shut eye himself (though some on campus are dubious!). When he invited students to Phelps House for the occasional device-free Sunday afternoon, complete with apple cider, football, and Frisbee, he too stashed away his Samsung S9+.

“Andover will miss you unconditionally,” Brooke Bidwell ’17 said. “It is a better place because of your leadership. You modeled, and continue to model, kindness, empathy, integrity, and positivity.”

Palfrey thoughtfully reinforced values of non sibi, youth from every quarter, and knowledge and goodness. And people noticed. He had a job to do in leading Andover; he had another job to show what responsible leadership looks like to impressionable youth.

“I will continually carry the lessons that I’ve learned from you in the classroom, the lessons you taught as head of school, and the lessons you taught most importantly as a person,” said Michael Codrington ’18.

In his final letter in Andover magazine, Palfrey wrote: “Andover is far from perfect; we don’t get every decision or every teaching moment right. But everyone works hard and, by and large, gets it correct far more often than not. Our students are growing up in an environment where adults model this behavior at every level of the organization. This alignment of our values with lived experience will ensure that Andover’s students and graduates lead lives of purpose. That may well be the most important thing we can do.”

Palfrey blogged and posted to social media often, putting some serious mileage on his laptop (pictured).

Tap, Scroll, Engage, Connect

As if teaching and meetings and hosting dinners and travel and fundraising were not enough, Palfrey also was active on multiple social media platforms, regularly posting on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook—often in tandem. Andover’s first digitally-savvy head, Palfrey blogged, posted, responded, and built an impressive online audience with more than 11,000 followers on Twitter and close to 4,000 followers on Instagram.

He used these platforms to communicate widely, from the serious to the sublime, sharing important Academy announcements and fundraising videos, congratulations to student performers, musicians, artists, and sports teams. He posted hundreds of photos: the annual promenade, a sunset painting Sam Phil a golden hue; a baby owl hiding in the bushes near Phelps House; students performing “Songs for a New World;” Jim Ventre ’79 enjoying Korean BBQ during a PA trip to Seoul.

Digital platforms not only provided a glimpse into the daily life of the head of school, but also a way to interact. Palfrey made himself accessible in both the physical and digital worlds as much as possible.

He leveraged his connections to the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, EdX, the MIT Media Lab, and to a host of trailblazers in ed tech and media to bring thought partners to campus. Many of these visits resulted in explorations into innovative teaching and learning by faculty at the Tang Institute and students in The Nest makerspace. By undergirding faculty resources with a new “Educational Initiatives” team with instructional design skills, Palfrey encouraged the development of hybrid and online courses. Students developed a robust platform for an annual TEDx event, using the internet as their stage for activism and self-expression.

Throughout his tenure, Palfrey continued to research and investigate how adolescents navigate the digital world. In 2016 he produced an update to Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, originally published in 2008. His perspective was broadened by first-hand experiences with Andover students, whom he lightly engaged in research to support new findings, which he shared with them in lively All-School Meeting presentations. Students sought his mentorship as they explored aspects of the promise and perils of the internet in independent projects, tackling topics ranging from artificial intelligence to digital propaganda and censorship.

The annual raucous welcome for new students with the Blue Key heads in major spirit mode.

Keeping Learning Fun

Each year in setting forth his annual priorities, Palfrey committed to the same final goal: “Make the overall experience fun.” Though the fun was intended for students, Palfrey most definitely enjoyed himself as well.

Always game to join the Blue Key heads in a cheer, participate in an athletic team practice, rock a new dance move, join student singers and actors on stage, or record a video greeting, the 1990 Exeter alum might actually bleed blue now. Palfrey never shied away from Big Blue spirit. A common chant during A-E Weekend, “We have PALFREY,” showed students’ affection for their head of school, whom some have called the most “woke” adult they know.

Palfrey often talked about the joy and fun in his job, and he showed it. During his first year as head, Palfrey appeared in a student video featuring the hit Gangnum Style. Looking sharp in his suit and tie and a pair of sunglasses, Palfrey tried his mightiest to do the viral dance on the steps of Sam Phil. It was, in a word, epic.

A running joke on campus was Palfrey’s woeful lack of pop culture knowledge. From candy and music to Netflix and celebrities, it was all a big shrug. He once visited the set of the hit comedy The Big Bang Theory with co-executive producer David Goetsch ’88, having no idea what the show was about.

At All-School Meeting this spring, Palfrey played cello with a faculty ensemble for a rendition of the theme from Avengers. Before the music began, Palfrey yanked off his tie and threw off his suit coat to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with an image of Thanos, a main character in the Marvel movie series.

“I have no idea what this movie is,” Palfrey said, “but I know everyone likes it!”

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