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Retiring CLPS Professor Kathryn Spoehr reflects on 50 years at Brown

From student to provost, Spoehr spent years bettering the Brown community

During her undergraduate year, Spoehr started as a math concentrator before taking a psychology course during her junior year to fulfill a distribution requirement. Courtesy of Kathryn Spoehr
During her undergraduate year, Spoehr started as a math concentrator before taking a psychology course during her junior year to fulfill a distribution requirement. Courtesy of Kathryn Spoehr

In 1969, women were required to wear skirts on Brown’s campus and the class president helped co-author the Open Curriculum. That year, Kathryn Spoehr ’69 received her degree in mathematical psychology. 

At the time, Brown was mostly coeducational apart from a required course for women taught at Pembroke College, the former women’s school which now makes up part of North Campus. “We had to take freshman fundamentals of motion, where we had to learn to walk in high heels carrying a suitcase,” Spoehr said. 

Women were also required to sign out if they were going to be out past 11 p.m. on a weeknight.

“We began putting an end to a lot of those things when I was a student,” Spoehr said. “Our class was kind-of rebellious.”


Spoehr’s class was part of the push for the New Curriculum, now called the Open Curriculum, spearheaded by then-class president Ira Magaziner ’69. “A lot of us spent a lot of time during our junior and senior years visiting faculty members and talking to them about the (New Curriculum) proposals so that we could get a positive vote in those faculty meetings at the end of that year,” Spoehr said. 

During her undergraduate year, Spoehr started as a math concentrator before taking a psychology course during her junior year to fulfill a distribution requirement.

“I took ‘Psych I’ and it was at that point I realized that a lot of the research being done in psychology at that period of time was applying mathematical models to predict human behavior, and I thought that was really cool,” she said.

Spoehr then began to speak with a professor in the psychology department and received a position in his lab the summer before her senior year. 

Despite Spoehr’s desire to create a new concentration that combined math and psychology, the University had not yet ratified the New Curriculum, which would have allowed her to do so without issue. Instead, she petitioned the Committee on Academic Standing to allow her to graduate with a degree in mathematical psychology, and succeeded. 

Spoehr then went on to earn her PhD in cognitive psychology at Stanford University, with a minor in computer science.

“It didn't occur to me that I was necessarily going to be a professor,” she said. “It occurred to me that maybe I would go to work for a place like IBM, which was developing software where, if you understand people, you can do things like artificial intelligence,” she said. 

But, after a couple years in graduate school, “it became clear that I was going to end up (working) at a university eventually,” she added. “And I did.”

In 1974, Spoehr’s former undergraduate honors advisor asked her to apply for a professor position at Brown. At the time, she was teaching at Rutgers University New Brunswick and was unsure about coming back to Brown.

Nonetheless, she decided to interview for the position as a favor to her advisor and was eventually offered the position. She became a member of the psychology department in 1974.


Spoehr also pursued other projects during her time at Brown. After she received tenure, she was loaned to the Navy as a scientific officer because “they wanted people who knew artificial intelligence and who understood how people think and learn, which was my field.”

In this position, Spoehr traveled across naval bases tasked with designing an artificial intelligence tutoring system that would help Navy sailors learn the electrical engineering curriculum quickly. 

“I realized that a lot of what I knew about how humans think, learn, practice, do problem-solving, and all the stuff I teach in my class has enormous practical implications for education,” she said. 

When she returned to Brown, she was offered a position as the associate provost for budget and planning. “I was running all the money that goes to pay professors and departments and teaching assistants and everything else,” she said.

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She also developed several research projects, including the ACCESS, “a multimedia, richly interlinked database for high school students who were taking American and U.S. Literature,” she explained.

According to Spoehr, ACCESS was first used in Providence Public Schools before it eventually spread to schools across the country.

In 1993, Spoehr became dean of the Graduate School and Research. “I thought about the fact that graduate students, at that point, were sort of second-class citizens at Brown and I wanted to do something for them,” she said. She became dean of the faculty in 1996.

When Gordon Gee became University president, he fired the then-provost, leaving an opening that Gee asked Spoehr to fill, which she accepted. Gee — who had been unpopular among faculty and students — resigned soon after.

Spoehr’s friend and CLPS department colleague, Sheila Blumstein, stepped in as acting president. “We hired other people to be dean, so we got the place back up and running,” she said. “It was a hard time.”

While they were challenging, these events led to one of Spoehr’s proudest moments at Brown.

After Gee resigned, Stephen Robert ’62 asked Spoehr to give a speech at a full faculty meeting. 

“I got up and I just said, ‘Look, we’re better off without a president who doesn’t understand Brown, but Sheila and I’ve got this,” Spoehr recalled, with tears in her eyes. 

“In fact, there are some students that put a banner up over the Wayland Arch that said, ‘Cogsci Girls Rule,’ and the faculty got up and gave me a standing ovation,” she said. 

Reflecting on her experience as a faculty member, Spoehr noted her appreciation for the students and culture of the University.

“I should have retired a decade ago, but it’s just fun teaching Brown students,” she said. “There’s so much energy and so much creativity that I’ve really enjoyed it.”

After she retires at the end of the year, Spoehr plans to “rest for a little while,” joking about the pile of exams she still has to grade. 

“My husband and I have both been active in the Rhode Island Historical Society, and I may volunteer for them a few days a week, things like that,” she said. “I’ll be coming up to campus because I’ll want to hear talks and things like that, so I’m not going to disappear entirely.”

Cate Latimer

Cate Latimer is a senior staff writer covering faculty and higher education. She is from Portland, OR, and studies English and Urban Studies. In her free time, you can find her playing ultimate frisbee or rewatching episodes of Parks and Rec.

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