Dispatch 49: In Memoriam - Dr. Don Polkinghorne, First President of Saybrook U (Institute)


We recently learned of Don's passing and I felt it only fitting that we place a tribute on my blog to this outstanding scholar and academic administrator. In addition to a full scholarly career, Don served as Saybrook's first official president beginning in the mid-1970s through 1986. He was also responsible for leading us to our first successful bid for accreditation in 1984.

Don leaves a lasting legacy across many institutions. Our condolences to his family, friends, and academic colleagues.

Please take a moment to read the very lovely tribute written by his widow, Dr. Judith Blanton, below. 


Donald Polkinghorne: November 8, 1936-January 17, 2018

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Professor Donald Polkinghorne, the Fahmy Attallah and Donna Attallah Chair in Humanistic Psychology and Emeritus Professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.  Professor Polkinghorne led a long and distinguished academic career.  He published groundbreaking books, including Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences, Methodology for the Human Sciences, and Practice and the Human Sciences.  He also published numerous articles on the relationship between qualitative methods and contemporary philosophy. As a humanistic psychologist, Professor Polkinghorne focused on the uniqueness of individuals in the way they experienced and lived their own lives.  He was concerned that psychological studies did not include areas such as the experiences of personal agency and responsibility.  Along with other humanistic psychologists, Professor Polkinghorne believed that psychology should not only attend to pathologies, but to the human possibilities of creativity, growth, fulfillment and healthy personalities.

Don taught his students and colleagues to approach research as human science, rather than apply scientific methods of research to understand human problems that have individual and non-replicable characteristics.  He held that the notion of best practices that work equally well for all who receive it assumes a similarity and consistency that does not exist across people.  In contrast to the best practice movement, Don’s work held that individual practitioners are the primary source of the solution to human problems. The focus on practitioners as the instrument of change led him to introduce the concept of practitioner judgment and drew on the philosophical traditions of Dewey, Gadamer, Rorty, and Heidegger to explain how practitioners through their engagement in inquiry activities develop new insights and can change their beliefs and practices.  He believed that “The solution of individual human problems depends on the particular helper and the way they relate to the individual.”  From 2000 until his retirement, he affiliated with researchers at the Rossier School of Education’s Center for Urban Education where his concepts of practitioner inquiry and judgment were adapted into tools for critical participatory action research to assist higher education practitioners to assume responsibility for changing their practices to close racial equity gaps.

Professor Polkinghorne’s educational background includes degrees in religious studies from Washington University (St. Louis), Yale University, and Hartford Seminary Foundation. During his academic career, in addition to his appointments as a professor, he held several academic leadership positions including the presidency of Saybrook Institute. Over the course of his career Professor, Polkinghorne received numerous awards, including election to the Presidency of the American Psychology Association’s Division of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, election as a Fellow of the American Psychological Association.

Professor Guilbert Hentchke, past dean of Rossier School of Education said of Don, “he was such a wonderful, thoughtful and warm person.  He was for me the epitome of what is best in a university faculty member: fully committed to his work, engaged productively with his colleagues and students, always theory-driven, and a true friend.”

Don was a gentleman and a scholar, as happy reading Husserl’s phenomenology as watching a USC football game and he sometimes did these things simultaneously.   He loved learning and teaching, sports, travel, hamburgers, and Springer Spaniels.  He was a serious athlete in college and is in the Washington University Sports Hall of fame where some of his football records still stand. 

Don will be missed greatly by his wife of 40 years, Dr. Judith Blanton, his daughter, Deborah Nunnick; step-daughter, Shanti Corrigan and brother, Robert Polkinghorne, as well as Winnie his beloved springer spaniel.

A celebration of his life will be held on April 15, 2018.  Please contact his wife, Dr. Judy Blanton for further information or if you would like to write a note of tribute.   For those who have asked about flowers, we would prefer to have donations in his name to the American Diabetes Association

Don’s daughter put together a webpage in Don's memory.  It is posted under Donald Polkinghorne at ForeverMissed.com to which notes and photos may be added.

Some of you may enjoy reading the introduction Don wrote for the book The Paradox of Loss: Toward a Relational Theory of Grief  - available when clicking the preview link for its listing on Amazon.   The book grew out of a dissertation that he supervised at USC.  The writing was for an academic audience but you can also get a sense of his deeply personal thinking about the topic