As a boy growing up in Northern California, Dr. Darrell Newton was the kid who would play for several hours with other children, but then sneak away to read science fiction or even better, to watch old black and white drama films from the BBC on local television.
Different cultures, or more specifically different perspectives, always intrigued him. They even led to becoming part of his academic research.
Newton, the Provost of Winona State University since last July, was fascinated by how a diverse group of people could watch the same show, enjoy it in similar ways, but interpret it differently based on their backgrounds and upbringing.
He was so enthralled in fact, that his academic research later became about effects media has on a person – especially in relation to their unique perspective.
Now, with a history of study abroad, teaching media studies, and becoming immersed in different cultures, Provost Newton — whose position helps guide the academic direction of the institution and provides support to the deans — has brought his experiences and passion for different global perspectives to WSU.
Whether it’s learning the perspectives and desires of the different colleges within the university or whether it’s gathering feedback on the future of WSU, Newton values the thoughtful input of others above all else.
“I have a deep respect for shared leadership, for faculty on campus, and for perspectives on the future of the university,” Newton said. “As a campus, we can’t move forward without their input and guidance.”
FROM ACADEMIC ROOTS
In some ways, academia runs in Newton’s veins.
On his mother’s side of the family, being a teacher, professor, or an educational administrator was a common theme with many family members pursuing master’s degrees in education.
“For my mom’s generation as black folks in the south, being a teacher was one of the most notable professions you could involve yourself in,” Newton said.
Newton recalls spending hours at Florida A&M University as a child, eavesdropping in the hallways on summer classes his aunt and uncle were teaching.
“That exposure encouraged me to consider academia even more,” Newton said.
On his dad’s side of the family, Newton had a strong example of hard work, innovation, and entrepreneurship with many of his family members owning auto repair shops or small businesses.
Between the two, Newton grew to be determined, ambitious, and a seeker of knowledge and cultural awareness.
“Nothing meant more to me than traveling and learning other cultures under the umbrella of academia,” Newton said. “Later, I could use these experiences to encourage students and faculty to do the same.”
A NEW PERSPECTIVE OVERSEAS
With a journey of first heading into the public school system in administration, Newton went on to the University of Wisconsin System as an advisor and recruiter. Taking a step out, he spent ten years in the corporate world before realizing that his heart called to higher education. He knew that in that space, his knowledge would be appreciated, and his continued learning would be encouraged.
In doing so he finally got to do the traveling and cultural immersion he longed to do.
“Academia allowed me to not only reach out to the world but gave me opportunities to explore about cultures and find my place as an African American scholar,” Newton said.
In 1991 while teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Newton finally got his chance to travel overseas to the very place that had sparked his interests, the United Kingdom.
A Whitewater colleague had invited him to London for spring break and what he experienced changed his perspective on how diverse and multicultural communities overseas were. He had thought that London, Paris and Rome consisted of mostly white Europeans, but that was certainly not the case.
During the visit, Newton and his friend were walking through a massive outdoor market when three women of color came walking toward them. One was a beautiful three shades darker than he, another was very light-skinned with freckles, and the third had medium brown skin, green eyes and very long hair. All three were walking arm and arm while laughing and talking in French.
“I looked at my friend and she said, ‘Darrell that’s London’,” Newton said. “This is what the world truly looks like.”
In recalling the story, Newton paused for reflection.
“Far too many students of color imagine the international community to be foreboding or the kind of places they might not be accepted in,” Newton said. “That is simply not the case.”
From then on Newton made it a mission to bring students of all kinds to the UK as a way to introduce them to the global community and show what other viewpoints there are to consider. Over the next 12 years, he designed and led seven UK study abroad programs, each with 4 to 15 students, to Wales and the Northern country.
Even to this day, Newton encourages others to (get out of their comfort zone and expand their viewpoints) study abroad — whether it’s to another country to study abroad or to a conference where they’ll gain new insight in their field or learn the perspectives of others.
He also does what he can to inspire others to continue to learn and strive for their goals.
As a professor, Newton encouraged students to rethink the world and examine their own perspectives on reality. As a department chair, Newton worked to fit workshops and conferences in the budget for faculty to continue their research and collaborate with other scholars. And as an associate dean, he made sure department chairs had the chance to continue these efforts for their faculty and students.
“To be in academia and not positively impact others would nearly be a waste of time,” Newton said with a smile.
Now as the Provost, Newton — who is the first person of color to hold the position at WSU — wants nothing more than to continue the trend by supporting the deans of the college.
“Here at WSU, the deans have my complete support in the things they want to accomplish,” Newton said with conviction. “I sincerely believe that we’re all trying to do what’s best for the students, faculty, and staff.”
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
Being thoughtful and intentional about adapting to the future is important to Newton.
“I want to help move us into the future in a way that allows us to be far more competitive than we have been before, to increase our enrollment and give opportunity to students of all kinds,” Newton said. “I want to assist colleagues and students as they accomplish their dreams and goals and I seek to support faculty in those endeavors.”
With the resiliency and fortitude the faculty and staff have shown in the COVID era, Newton has full confidence that WSU will not only persevere but excel through the challenges it faces – including enrollment shifts.
One example of a way Newton would like to encourage adapting to the future is in focusing on the continual offer of online classes that were developed through the pandemic.
“If the Deans and faculty desire it, I’d like to see us offer up a range of online classes that will complement our hybrid, distance education, and face to face offerings,” Newton said.
With WSU having a strong foundation and history of in-person classes, Newton feels online classes would offer quality education in a way that other online for-profit colleges are not able to. Given that so many online programs are offered by for profit institutions, many don’t have a true stake in higher education. WSU has a solid history as a brick and mortar institution of serving students in a variety of ways.
“As WSU considers expanding online offerings in this region, the effort could appeal to those who already know the reputation of the campus,” Newton said. “If students happen to live four states away but are passionate, they should be able to take our classes.”
Newton pointed to courses that were offered previously during summer sessions, or recently in January and during J-term, to demonstrate how successful online courses can be.
Newton said the university should continue to utilize and expand not only full online class offerings, but the online tools that have become nearly commonplace during the pandemic. Hybrid classes have in some ways strengthened face-to-face classes, by offering additional resources like bringing into class a guest speaker virtually.
“As an example, I was invited to do a Zoom two-hour presentation about my research to French students, and that was something I was able to do from Minnesota,” Newton said. “I can see us as a campus doing far more of this if professors want.”
THANKFUL FOR THE OPPORTUNITY
With the experience of moving steadily up the ladder, from lecturer to professor and from Chair to Associate Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs before arriving at Winona, Newton looks forward to supporting faculty and working with others on campus to create change for the better.
“The farther I’ve gone in academe, the more I’ve hoped to impact the lives of others,” Newton said.
With changing demographics and a realignment of how education is offered in the wake of the pandemic, Newton said he’s up for the challenge of collaborating, brainstorming, and helping WSU find solid paths forward.
“It means a lot to me to become a provost and assist in making a difference,” Newton said. “It really allows me to hopefully provide the support faculty, staff, students, and the community richly deserve.