It is customary for college magisters to go by their first names within their residential colleges, but most Wiessmen already knew him as “Professor Hutchinson” or “Dr. Hutchinson” – professor of General Chemistry, the course that almost half of the incoming freshman class took in their first semester. The students at Wiess simply were not going to call him John, even if they did call his wife Paula. “Professor Hutchinson” was too stuffy, “Dr. Hutchinson” even worse.
To save some syllables, in their conversations students called him “Hutch.” It wasn’t a nickname he picked himself – his brother was called Hutch – but he asked his students to adopt the term. Today, it essentially serves as his name – it is his Facebook page’s title, his email signature and his moniker in the minds of Rice students.
It’s easy to assume that “Hutch” is a persona – a character of a dean constructed to be the right proportion of relatable, respected and revered. To students, it may often look that way – a carefully curated image of a university administrator that “gets” Rice that he puts on from nine to five in Lovett Hall. But Hutch does not go home and remove a mask to become John Hutchinson again. He really just is the same person.
This trait of a singular personality at work and at home, with students and with administrators, comes from having his work and his home overlap in their entirety. Hutch and Paula were masters at Wiess from 1994 to 2001 and at Brown College from 2003 to 2008. Their work was their home. Raising two daughters, teaching chemistry, serving as an administrator, cooking dinner and looking after 300 students were all done within the hedges.
While Rice student life immediately interested the Hutchinsons when they arrived in 1983, they were skeptical about the possibility of becoming masters. Their daughter Emma, who was born with polycystic kidney disease, was the focal point of their time. Adding onto their responsibilities both as parents and as a chemistry professor and lawyer seemed like a daunting task. In 1993, when Hutch and Paula applied for the position of Wiess masters, the Hutchinsons were upfront and told the students there it was possible they would need to leave if Emma’s health began to fail.
Ultimately, Emma’s health did start to deteriorate, but instead of turning Hutch and Paula away from the university, it brought them closer to it. They were not just a couple living next door; they were friends going through immense difficulty. Hutch and Paula did not hide their tears or pretend to be stoic, instead allowing students into their lives. Emma was not just the Hutchinsons’ daughter – she was also a Wiessman and a Brownie. At 20 years old, Emma Hutchinson passed away on August 23, 2008.
Hutch still tears up as he remembers the support he got from the campus community throughout Emma’s sickness: “Everyone [was] rallying around us as we were trying to keep Emma alive.”
Hutch still grieves Emma’s passing – it’s not a secret. Pictures of his family with Emma sit on his desk in his dean’s office in Lovett Hall. He doesn’t flip the switch between being an administrator and a human. “Hutch” is just one person.
It’s March 4, 2018 and Hutch and Paula are attending a vigil held in memory of Lovett College junior Blain Padgett, who had passed away two days prior. It’s not their first event remembering the life of a Rice student or young alum, but eight years into the job of dean of undergraduates, the vigils still haven’t gotten any easier. The passing of a student is a heavy weight on the shoulders of a dean of undergraduates tasked with helping the community deal with the pain. The emotions are especially strong for Hutch as he continues to think of Emma, who was a month away from starting her junior year at Trinity University when she passed away.
Paula knows these situations are the toughest part of his job for him. Hutch says they are “personally difficult and emotionally demanding.” He knew when he took the job that the flashbacks of Emma’s passing would come with every passing of a student, but it also means he understands the intensity of the pain of the family and the community. He tries to use his experience to make a small positive impact on those who are grieving. He says to them the things he found comforting in 2008 and looks to “comfort [the families] at a time that it is almost impossible for them to be comforted.”
Hutch stresses the important emotional demand that is placed on the dean in times like this. He views sharing grief as an essential part of moving forward.
“The more we can share grief with each other the stronger, the stronger we all are together,” Hutch said.
While taking on a share of the grief helps strengthen the community in times of need, it is the part of the job that has weighed the heaviest on him. It’s one part he won’t miss about the job.
“It’s taken a toll. I think about each one of them, I think about each of their individual circumstances and I can’t help but think about Emma every time I do that,” he said.
Paula says administrative issues, meetings with the board of trustees and budgetary constraints don’t faze Hutch. Rather, it’s the issues that affect student health and wellbeing that keep him up at night – not that he’s had much time to sleep throughout the years.
Hutch knows he can’t be responsible for the individual well-being of nearly 4,000 students – he even tells college magisters that they can’t feel responsible for the lives of their 300. The individual struggles hit him hard, but his focus is always on the collective good and how to address greater threats to the physical and mental state of students.
When working with college students, an ever-present well-being concern is alcohol consumption. He knows that college students will drink. “It is a guaranteed fact,” he said. When named dean in 2010, Hutch immediately inherited a dire situation. With an alarmingly high number of students finding themselves in the hospital from excessive drinking, Hutch felt that if he didn’t act, a student could be seriously harmed or die. While some, such as university President David Leebron, pushed for swift action, Hutch prioritized student involvement in the decision-making process.
“Whenever we have events that threaten seriously or cause serious damage or harm to students, my immediate reaction is we need to move right away and do something,” Leebron said. “It was really in many ways working with John who really wanted to make sure that this was a collaborative process in some sense.”
Both Hutch and Leebron showcase this as an example of Hutch’s focus on student autonomy. From these discussions came the student-supported hard alcohol ban in 2011 and alcohol policy that made similar restrictions permanent in 2013.
However, Hutch does place limits on student power, the first and most clear being the university having a legal responsibility to limit student decision-making. As an example, a college cannot write into its policies that underage drinking is permissible. The second and trickier limit to student autonomy is where he feels he has a moral imperative to intervene in student life.
As dean, he has attempted to focus on a longer-term vision of student issues. He points out that student leaders are limited in view to their one year in power, while he has an eight-year tenure as dean and a 35-year tenure at Rice to look back on. He said this has allowed him to see when changes are needed and to oversee implementation of new policies. A more cynical point of view, however, is that Hutch can impose his decisions upon the undergraduate body at will – after all, student anger cannot last when a quarter of the population graduates every year.
Hutch had an intense level of admiration and support among students when his term began, much of it a remnant of his time as Brown master. Since then, the cult of Hutch has waned, according to 2016-17 Student Association President Griffin Thomas (Lovett ’17). Student concerns are cyclical, and after discussing the same issues multiple times over the course of eight years, Hutch can sometimes come off as “patronizing and dismissive of student concerns,” Thomas said.
While Thomas saw minor shortcomings in Hutch’s interactions with students, he appreciated Hutch’s constant presence in student life. There is bound to be inherent tension between the dean’s office and the decisions the colleges wish to pursue, but Thomas pointed out that student opposition to university decisions had grown throughout his years on campus.
“I think that students are typically too hard on him,” Thomas, who was also Lovett president in 2015-16, said. “From every interaction I had with him – of which, there were hundreds – Hutch always put students’ interests first.”
Most fall semesters in recent years, Hutch’s day begins in Keck Hall for General Chemistry I. He’s been teaching the class for 30 years, every year working on tweaking the course and observing how students respond and learn best. Through it, he has earned almost every teaching award for which he has been eligible. It is the course that changed his life – what drove him to learn more about the colleges, what inspired his research area of chemistry education and what tied him to his interest in pedagogy and teaching.
When prompted, Leebron immediately began listing all of Hutch’s curricular and academic accomplishments as dean, such as the creation of the Center for Teaching Excellence and First-year Writing Intensive Seminar courses. He chuckles as he remembers that Hutch continues to teach Gen Chem.
“The only way to limit Dean Hutchinson’s class is to have them at 8 in the morning because he is such an incredibly popular teacher that he’ll get a large class even at 8 a.m.,” Leebron said.
When Hutch became dean, he stipulated that he wanted to keep teaching, and as the years have gone by, he has maintained a full teaching load. He continues to teach Gen Chem in the fall and a FWIS titled “Critical Thinking in Democracy” that he teaches in the spring with Paula. The combination of a lawyer and a scientist, both self-described “current events junkies,” makes for an interesting class discussion, he said.
But after returning for class, he returns to his office for what he calls the “least glamorous and least visible” part of the job: budgets, personnel and bureaucracy.
His office on the far-right end of Lovett Hall, which he jokes has a ghost roaming around, has been his home base for eight years. The office suite, clearly heavily renovated in the 106-year-old building, has a reception area with two frustratingly asymmetrical desks for Yesenia Montoya and Wendi Schoffstall, the two division administrators for his office who greet you before Hutch allows you into his office.
This summer, Hutch retreats back to the other side of campus, an office on the third floor of Dell Butcher Hall, where he has based his chemistry work and meetings but left mostly unattended for the better half of a decade.
Overseeing the organization of the dean of undergraduates’ office may be the least glamorous part of the job, but it is a large part of his responsibilities. His office provides services like multicultural affairs, study abroad, Student Judicial Programs and student media. In all of these areas, Hutch has imparted his most essential teaching: If expectations for students are set high, they will meet and exceed them. He codified this in his employees through his office’s mission statement, which begins with “To set high and clear expectations for our students.”
This philosophy might sound vague and convoluted, but Hutch explains it simply through Rice’s history with the honor code. He says the university’s history of success with the honor code can be tied to Rice’s expectation that people will conduct themselves with academic integrity and the clear messaging that is given to students during Orientation Week. However, he knows the honor system is not perfect, citing failings in the communication and clarity of its expectations.
Hutch believes that it is not just the honor code or student affairs staff that depend on setting high and clear expectations, but also the entire tradition of student life at Rice. For him, the entire college system and Rice community is built on students setting high expectations for themselves and exceeding them to make their community better.
“If we didn’t have high expectations, we’d be another place where people didn’t care about each other and didn’t care about the university and just went about their own business,” Hutch said. “And that would be a huge loss.”
Thirty-five years of his life have been dedicated to the university. More than basically any president, professor or administrator, Hutch’s life has been inextricably tied to Rice undergraduates. As Hutch’s tenure ends, the university and student groups alike seek to honor Hutch’s legacy through celebrations, hashtags and events.
Much of the conversation regarding Hutch’s departure focuses on his sacrifice of time and effort for the Rice student body. He and Paula, however, don’t see it that way. Rather than sacrifice, Hutch sees his experience as reciprocal. The Rice community, he says, has taken care of him well for his entire career. Students, faculty and staff supported his family in difficult times; they did not just employ him, but also housed him and give him a place to conduct research.
“Rice has taken incredibly good care of me and my family and I want to give back on that,” Hutch said.
At the point of his career that Hutch would have been most likely to seek another job, he never considered leaving due to Emma’s health. They were across the street from the best medical care they could find for her. After her passing when it was finally a possibility, Hutch says he and Paula lost their direction as they figured out how to move on – at Rice or elsewhere. He looked into very few other employment opportunities and applied for even fewer.
“When I do look at places, it reminds me just how great it is to be at Rice,” Hutch said. “This is an incredibly unique environment and it is not a surprise that people don’t leave Rice.”
The next step after a dean of undergraduates position would be provost, a position that does not appeal to him. He says favorite part of the role has been working with students directly, which a provost rarely gets to do. He plans on going back to being a chemistry professor, possibly ending his administrative career this June. The original term was five years, he stayed seven; now, he and Paula are excited to get back to a normal life – where they are not on call at all hours of the day and living crisis to crisis.
“The job has been frustrating at times, it’s been heartbreaking at times,” Paula Hutchinson said. “It’s been demanding at times but he has loved it. It’s tiring though and I’m glad that he is finally saying ‘OK.’ They wanted him to do it 10 years and we said, ‘No way. No how.’ It’s time for somebody else to come and do wonderful things.”
1977: Hutch completes his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas, Austin.
1978: Paula and John Hutchinson get married. He said they met in 1973 and fell in love in 1975.
1981: Hutch receives his doctorate from the University of Texas, Austin.
1981: The Hutchinsons’ daughter, Ashlyn, is born. She would spend all of her teenage years living with her parents at Wiess College.
1983: Hutch joins the faculty at Rice after having spent his postdoctoral years teaching at the University of Denver and teaching and doing research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
1984: Hutch and his wife, Paula, become associates at Lovett College, a position they would hold until becoming Wiess College masters in 1994. Hutch said he was recruited by former Lovett master Robert Curl to become an associate at Lovett.
“[Being an associate at Lovett] gave me exposure to the significance of the college system in the lives of Rice students,” Hutch said.
1988: The Hutchinsons’ youngest daughter, Emma, is born. She was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease and when she was 1 year old received a kidney transplant from her grandmother.
1988: Hutch begins teaching General Chemistry, a course he has taught every year since, except while on sabbatical. He had previously been teaching junior-level physical chemistry. Hutchinson taught all new students taking General Chemistry, meaning he met almost half of the freshman class through his course.
“[Teaching Gen Chem] gave me the opportunity to get to know far far more students,” Hutch said. “I got more interested and engaged in the lives of our students through that general chemistry connection.”
1989: Hutch is promoted to associate professor of chemistry.
1989: The first episode of the Simpsons premieres. Hutch said the family would become closely associated with the TV show during their time as masters. At Wiess, the Hutchinsons invited the college over to watch the Simpsons almost every Sunday night, which around 100 students usually attended. At Brown College, the last beer bike shirt during their time as masters was “The Hutchinsons,” that featured the Hutchinson family drawn as Simpsons characters.
“[The Simpsons are] the very best political satire that has ever been created,” Paula Hutchinson said. “It is timely. One of the great things is that it just isn’t dated. We’re very politically motivated and active and particularly like people who point out hypocrisy – it was just a natural fit.”
1993: Hutch begins research on chemistry education, while continuing his previous work in theoretical chemical physics. Hutch said that by observing students in his general chemistry course, he became interested in chemistry education as a field of study.
“In observing students in [Gen Chem] I began to understand things that I felt were fundamental flaws in the ways that chemistry is taught. Really structural, basic, fundamental flaws. Both in the content and in the presentation of the material.”
1994: John and Paula Hutchinson begin their term as Wiess masters, where they especially focus on guiding Wiess through large cultural changes. Hutch said Wiess had only recently become co-ed and he pushed heavily for equal gender representation in college government.
“There’s a challenge in preserving the traditions of a community but getting rid of the aspects of that culture where the traditions are based on gender discrimination or other forms of discrimination or habits and behaviors that would no longer be reasonable,” Hutch said.
1995: Upon arrival at Wiess, the Hutchinsons were not pleased with the way the Night of Decadence party was being conducted – the party was open to anyone, not just Rice students, and allowed cameras inside. They worked to make changes to NOD to make it safer while maintaining the tradition of the party.
“The agenda here was to make sure that people understood that the students were organizing a party that we believed was safe and a party that was respectful while still living out on the edge that college students often want to do,” Hutch said. “To sort of push what are the boundaries, to push conventions. To do things that you can do in college that you can’t do elsewhere.”
1999: Will Rice College masters Dale and Elise Sawyer write a letter, signed by 10 of the 16 college masters, stating that NOD encourages an environment of abusive drinking and sexual assault. Hutch said he does not believe the party endangered students and that many in the community did not know the safety measures that had been implemented in the previous years.
“Good lord, we are decent human beings,” Hutch said. “We would never permit an environment in which we thought sexual assault was being fostered. To the contrary, we would only create an environment in which students understood responsibilities and respect for each other.”
1999: The Hutchinsons receive a two-year term extension as Wiess masters to provide continuity as Wiess’ new residential building is built. The previous Wiess building was sinking into the ground without possibility of repair. The discussions and plans for the new building were primarily made during the Hutchinsons’ time as masters.
2000: Hutch is named assistant vice president for student affairs, a part-time position advising the Vice President for Student Affairs Zenaido Camacho. Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Student Life and Director of Multicultural Affairs Catherine Clack said some in her division were concerned at his lack of student affairs experience when Hutch was hired. She said that she went to him with a list of compiled questions when he took the role.
“He answered every single last one of those questions to the point that I left there going ‘It doesn’t matter what he said, this guy is awesome and he’s going to do a great job,’” Clack said. “We haven’t had any concerns about him since.”
2000: Hutch is named director of academic advising in July after serving as interim director since January. At this point, Hutch held four jobs: Wiess master, chemistry professor, assistant vice president for student affairs and academic advising director.
“So far I’m having a wonderful time. I think the jobs reinforce one another,” Hutch said to the Thresher in July 2000. “I mean, I don’t sleep much, but that’s all right, as long as I’m doing things that I like to do.”
2000: Hutch, in his capacity as assistant vice president for student affairs, and VPSA Zenaido Camacho, enter the KTRU Radio Station DJ booth and ask the student DJ to leave. This begins the eight-day KTRU shutdown, during which students are locked out of the radio station upon directive of Camacho and President Malcolm Gillis. Hutch said not pushing back on the decision to shut down the station was the biggest mistake he made in his time before being dean of undergraduates.
2001: Hutch discontinues research on theoretical chemistry to focus fully on chemistry education scholarship – studying the way chemistry is most effectively taught and learned. Hutch said he didn’t publish as much in the period from 2000-2008 due to the health difficulties of his daughter, Emma.
“It was much harder for me,” Hutch said. “Emma needed us and I wanted to be there for her. There were long stretches where she would be in the hospital and we would want to be there.”
2001: As the Hutchinsons’ time as Wiess masters comes to a close, the college raises $7,000 to donate to the National Kidney Foundation in honor of Hutch’s daughter Emma.
“It was an incredibly emotional moment for us,” Hutch said, tearing up. “There is nothing they could’ve done that would’ve been more meaningful for us than to acknowledge that a central part of our personal lives was Emma’s health. To do what they could to help out with that was just an incredible gesture.”
2001: The Hutchinsons’ term as Wiess College masters ends.
“For Paula and me and for Emma and Ashlyn as well, I think it was for us a magical time in our lives,” Hutch said. “I think there was just this incredibly close relationship that went both ways. It was clear that all of us were incredibly supported by the members of the college. That they rallied around us during times of real health difficulties. I think we all had a shared sense of mutual support, even love. Some of the very best friends Paula and I ever made were students during that time.”
2003: The Hutchinsons are named Brown masters. Hutch resigns as director of academic advising to focus on being Brown master but continues serving as assistant vice president for student affairs.
“There was just no way that we were going to turn down the opportunity to have the kind of fabulous experience that we had at Wiess,” Paula Hutchinson, then an attorney at McDade, Fogler and Maines, told the Thresher in 2003. “Quite frankly, we prefer the crazy life of being masters to our normal life.”
2004: Hutch takes on position of interim vice president for student affairs while a search is conducted for the newly created position of dean of undergraduates. Recently-appointed university President David Leebron created the position to broaden the scope of the vice president of student affairs to include the academic aspect. Mathematics professor Robin Foreman was selected for the position. Hutch said he did not apply to become the new dean when the position was created in 2004 due to being stretched thin, but took on the position as interim VPSA “because they needed me to do it.”
“There was no way for the university to continue without someone being in that role and I was the obvious person to do it,” Hutch said. “It was a very, very difficult seven-month period for me. The lifestyle of being dean of undergraduates is wholly incompatible with being the parent of a chronically ill child. So there was just no way I was going to do it.”
2007: Hutch receives the George R. Brown Certificate of Highest Merit for Teaching Excellence for superior teaching in undergraduate education. The award is given to professors only once in their careers at Rice.
2008: The Hutchinsons’ term as Brown masters ends. Hutch said their experience differed strongly from their time at Wiess while being equally meaningful. Their daughter Emma was hospitalized for extended periods of time while they lived at Brown. Hutch said the college provided deeply impactful support and love during the time.
“When I think back at our years at Brown, I think principally of the friendships that came from the students and the other members of the community taking care of us during a very difficult period of our lives and in turn, the hope that we were giving back to that community with the same kind of love and support,” Hutch said.
2008: The Hutchinsons’ youngest daughter, Emma, passes away on Aug. 23, a few months after the family moved out of Brown. She was 20 years old and about to begin her junior year at Trinity University.
“No one I’ve ever known has better understood the importance of experiencing life to its fullest by a willingness to take chances on difficult tasks, on new relationships, on challenging subjects, on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities not to be missed,” Hutch wrote in the Thresher on the seventh anniversary of Emma’s passing, in 2015.
2009: The Hutchinsons spend the majority of their sabbatical year in Colorado. They spent the year grieving their daughter Emma’s passing and living closer to their eldest daughter, Ashlyn, who lived in nearby Denver. During this time, Hutch worked as a visiting faculty member at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“For 20 years, Emma had been our lives,” Hutch said. “We were going to have to figure what to do with the next 20 years. [The sabbatical] gave us the time to do that.”
2010: Hutch is selected as Rice’s second dean of undergraduates after Robin Foreman announced his intention to leave Rice. Hutch said he was not immediately interested in applying due to the newness of Emma’s passing, but that his wife Paula talked him into submitting an application.
2010: A week into Hutch’s term as dean of undergraduates, President David Leebron announces that the 50,000 watt radio frequency and broadcast tower used to broadcast KTRU will be sold to the University of Houston system for $9.5 million, inciting widespread protest from students and alums. Hutch said the decision was made before he took the role, and his role was in ensuring the success of the station once they were not on the airwaves. He declined to comment on whether he agreed with the sale.
“I think KTRU is in a better position now than it was 10 years ago because it has about an $850,000 dollar endowment [given to them from the sale],” Hutch said. “That gives them the ability to do all kinds of music programing on campus while still being a broadcast radio station.”
2011: Working with newly-elected college presidents to solve what Hutch sees as a widespread problem: lack of safety in alcohol consumption on campus, he implements a temporary alcohol probation that bans hard alcohol and adds other specific rules decided by each college. The probation starts in March and ends in the fall. Hutch said that as students were choosing to “experiment with alcohol” by consuming hard liquor, rather than beer, the number of medical emergencies had increased to a point of grave concern.
“By the time I became dean, [hard alcohol] became really prevalent,” Hutch said. “The consequences of that were people having medical emergencies across campus. And eventually we reached a point that effectively it was a crisis. We were going to have serious consequences, including loss of student life, if we didn’t take some very active measure.”
2012: Hutch spearheads the creation of the Center for Teaching Excellence. The center seeks to engage the Rice community in conversation about teaching and learning and promoting stronger teaching at the university.
2012: 11 students are transported to the hospital during Night of Decadence, prompting outside media attention and extra emphasis on the revision of the alcohol policy.
2013: Hutch announces a new version of the alcohol policy, which limits and defines requirements for private gatherings and limits hard alcohol possession and consumption.
“The clear intent is to separate hard alcohol from people under the age of 21,” Hutch said in 2013.
2015: Hutch accepts a three-year extension in his term as dean of undergraduates following the hiring of new provost Marie Lynn Miranda, who said she tried to convince him to take on another five-year term, but he insisted on continuing for only three more years.
“When I arrived at Rice, Hutch’s term was up for renewal,” Miranda said. “It was very clear that having Hutch continue in the role was in the best interest of the university, and I was delighted to renew his term.”
2017: The title of “master” is replaced by “magister”. Hutch, who oversees the magisters, said the new title was chosen to create a unique word that signifies the academic nature of the role, while eliminating the connotations associated with the word “master” in the United States that tie the word to the nation’s history with slavery.
“The initiative to make a change came from the masters themselves, who recognized that the title was problematic,” Hutch said in 2017. “It generated an uncomfortable relationship with people who were new to Rice and didn’t know the history of the position, people who were not members of the Rice community including prospective students or family members.”
2017: The first iteration of the mandatory Critical Thinking in Sexuality workshop takes place at Rice. The workshop, based off a proposal by 2015-16 Student Association President Jazz Silva in the fall of 2015 and heavily supported by Hutch, focuses on gender, sexual communication and consent. 2016-17 SA President Griffin Thomas said that Hutch played a larger role in the creation of CTIS than most students are aware of.
"Hutch was the one administrator who went to great lengths to see the program through to fruition.”
2018: In May, Paula and John Hutchinson will be awarded the Meritorious Service Award by the Association of Rice Alumni for “significant, sustained and voluntary contributions of energy, time and creativity toward the advancement of the university.”
2018: Hutch’s term as dean of undergraduates will come to an end and he will be succeeded by sociology professor and Will Rice magister Bridget Gorman. Hutch said he plans to return to focusing on his role as a chemistry professor and expand his scholarship on chemistry education, focusing on online chemistry courses.