On Aug. 30, members of the Deerfield community received news from the Board of Trustees and Head of School Search Committee that John Austin will succeed Head of School Margarita Curtis on July 1, 2019.
Dr. Austin has served as Headmaster since 2010 at King’s Academy, a boarding school in Madaba, Jordan founded by King Abdullah II ’80 and modeled after Deerfield’s principles. Prior to his time at King’s, Dr. Austin taught at St. Andrew’s School in Delaware for 18 years, where he served as Chair of the English Department, Dean of Students, and Academic Dean. He also taught, coached and served as a dorm parent with his wife Monica, who also served as Academic Dean for several years.
“It would be hard to find somebody of this background that offers both continuity and fresh perspectives,” Dr. Curtis said.
Dr. Austin’s tenure at King’s has been marked by significant achievements. The young school has grown significantly during his time as Headmaster, doubling the size of its student body, increasing its international student population, and broadening possible electives for students.
“[Dr. Austin] is closer to the students than a typical headmaster [is],” said Hend AlZeer ’20, a current student at King’s Academy. “He cares for us. He wakes up every day, early in the morning, just to greet us and help us tie our ties.”
Speaking about the highlights of his tenure as an educator and leader, Dr. Austin remarked, “I think what I’m most proud of is the way in which the spirit and ethos of [King’s] and the feeling of community have developed over time … education is all about creating a great experience and sense of community that embraces everyone. [This] is more important than growth in size and changes in the curriculum.”
Dr. Austin graduated from Williams College in 1987. He received a Master’s degree in English Literature from Middlebury College in 1991 and holds a Master of Arts, Master of Philosophy, and Doctorate in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Dr. Austin said, “I’m excited for new challenges, and a school like Deerfield has, in my view, always defined the very best of what a boarding school education should be.”
Nikita Pelletier ’20, who participated in Deerfield’s Jordan trip last year, commented, “I really hope that, with his diverse background in education, he can share his experiences in a way that will help Deerfield grow as a community.”
Dr. Austin was selected through an extensive process that began last spring when Dr. Curtis announced her plans to retire in the upcoming year. A search committee made up of seven trustees and several current faculty members worked with search firm Carney, Sandoe & Associates to select her successor.
On the search process, Dr. Austin said, “I’ve spent my entire life in boarding schools … I think [the search committee] just felt like I had a set of experiences that aligned well with what they were looking for.”
As he enters his last year at King’s, Dr. Austin looked back on his time in Jordan with gratitude.
“It’s really the people that make a school and make a place, and I’ve been just lucky to work with some incredible faculty,” he said. “Jordanians are incredibly warm, hospitable and loyal.”
AlZeer spoke fondly of Dr. Austin, stating that his role as a father of three children “ingrained in him the care a father would have to his students.”
At King’s, Dr. Austin was not afraid to take firm stances on issues when necessary. In 2017, in an incident detailed in The Rexonian, King’s Academy’s student-run newspaper, protests were sparked when a committee of King’s personnel rejected certain designs that seniors had submitted for their senior jackets. During a meeting with the seniors, Dr. Austin stated, “Freedom of speech is overrated,” which incited both frustration and confusion from some students.
Elaborating on his past words, Dr. Austin explained his goal was to prompt students to think about how the words and images on their senior jackets would be understood and perceived by others.
“There are constraints on what is permissible and not permissible speech,” he said. “I want young people to not only to be able to express themselves freely, but also to be able to express themselves in a way that is civic-minded and sensitive to the standards and norms of a community.”
Dr. Austin cited expressions of hatred, bigotry or violence as forms of speech that schools have a responsibility to ward off.
As 2019 approaches, Dr. Austin has many hopes for his first few years at Deerfield.
“I’d like to spend the first years getting to know the Deerfield community,” Dr. Austin said. “My whole theory of change is that schools need to constantly evolve … I don’t have a change agenda, but I do hope that, over my time at Deerfield, [I’ll be] able to work with faculty, staff, students, and the board to ensure that Deerfield is alive to future opportunities and that the education we’re providing students is adequate to a rapidly changing world and economy.”
Praising the committee’s choice, Dr. Curtis said, “[Dr. Austin] has a warmth and an approachability that is very endearing. When you’re in front of him you realize that he’s just there to listen to you and that he cares about what you are saying … He followed this path in his life because he cares about young people.”
Further elaborating on his goals for Deerfield, Dr. Austin said, “I’m excited to build on [the] Deerfield spirit and commitment to certain educational values when I get [there]. [I’m excited] to meet the faculty and students and everyone that works there. I feel like I know Deerfield very, very well, but I also know that I have a lot to learn.”
On a short three-day trip to Deerfield from Oct. 2 to Oct. 4, Dr. Austin will talk with students and faculty and begin to, as he put it, “see Deerfield from the perspective of students and faculty and learn what they value most and love best about Deerfield.”
Sharing her final thoughts on Dr. Austin and what he will bring to the Deerfield community in the many years to come, Dr. Curtis concluded, “I am absolutely certain that this school will continue to thrive under Dr. Austin’s wise, visionary leadership. I can’t think of a better person to assume this role at this juncture in the school’s history.”