Donna Kerr

Emeritus Professor

Donna H. Kerr brings over three decades as a scholar in cultural foundations and as a university administrator into her teaching in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. A former middle and upper school teacher of French, journalist and television commentator, and social worker, she arrived at the UW in 1973 with degrees in the Russian language and literature and Slavic and Soviet area studies (Kansas) and philosophy and education (Columbia).

During the 1970s, Professor Kerr's scholarship focused on educational policy, teaching, and rights (Educational Policy: Analysis, Structure, and Justification and numerous journal articles). In her administrative work in the 1980s (at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and at the University of Washington), Kerr studied education through lenses of epistemology, ethics, and political theory (Barriers to Integrity and articles mainly on the organizational and cultural difficulties in acting in accord with what we know and value; her administrative work as vice provost centered on undergraduate and professional education (Undergraduate Education at the University of Washington: Report to the Regents) and her portfolio as dean to launch the two new campuses of the University consisted mainly of political and organizational development in the academic setting (Plan to Expand Upper-division and Graduate Education in the Puget Sound Region: A Report to the Higher Education Coordinating Board).

Back on the faculty through the 1990s to the present, with the exception of two years as the University’s Secretary of the Faculty, 2005-07,  Professor Kerr concentrates principally on three interrelated topics: the impact of various forms of domination and nurture on human formation (e.g., "Democracy, Nurturance, and Community"); widely varying approaches to understanding the formation of democratic character in a highly imperfect world (e.g., "Voicing Democracy in an Imperfect World"); and the formation of prejudices (e.g., "Toward a Democratic Rhetoric of Education"). In addition to drawing on philosophy, her recent studies also tap principally theories of the psyche, and political theory, and fiction. The manuscript for her new book, currently under review for publication, attempts to bring her academic work to a broader public with the use of metaphor to convey theory in a narrative form.

For her mentoring of doctoral students in particular ("students study excellent works in a variety of disciplines pertaining to understanding human formation, pursue their own passions regarding education, and critique each other's work"), the Spencer Foundation awarded Kerr a Mentor Grant for 2000-2002. She says, "This award is especially satisfying. The unsolicited Spencer Fellowship that I received early in my career through the National Academy of Education acknowledged my own work and potential as a scholar. That was quite wonderful. But to be recognized for my work as an educator helping others develop their interests in disciplined ways gives me an especially deep sense of personal satisfaction. As an educator (or parent), one stands in a morally precarious position; it is so very easy to do harm. In such asymmetrical relationships, nurturing (and not dominating or "colonizing") others is to me the most complex, most important, and very highest human achievement, no matter whether the others are young children or adults. Such is the stuff of helping develop livable lives and democratic character under highly imperfect conditions."

As this comment from a student one seminar attests, she also enjoys working with beginning graduate students: "Our course was the perfect introduction to graduate school. I really appreciated the laid back yet highly interesting atmosphere. I'm sure you are one of the most well read and intelligent people I know, however you always made us feel comfortable in class. Thank you for being approachable and supportive."

On the side, Kerr delights in studying languages and improvisational theatre and believes that "the subjunctive is essential to making life worth living."

Ph.D., Columbia University, 1973