President Eric Boynton
Beloit’s new president is forward-thinking and exceedingly positive about the college’s future. Eric Boynton, a philosophy professor by trade and the college’s former provost, is also a husband, father of two, owner of three dogs, noted leader in higher education circles, master of power tools, and a good listener.
Even before he took office on July 1 as Beloit’s 12th president, Eric Boynton was on a mission to let it be known that a Beloit education has never been more relevant in the world. He gets fired up when he talks about Beloit’s strengths and the need for its career-focused program, grounded in the liberal arts. He insists that the liberal arts are not in crisis. Rather, he says the world is in crisis to the point that it doesn’t understand that it needs people trained in exactly this kind of liberal arts environment.
“We need people who are able to move around problems from multiple perspectives and think through issues,” he says. “To be able to navigate the world, this is the meaning of the liberal arts. To be free actors because they understand the parts and pieces of the world and find their way through to become leaders and play a role in the world in this flexible, ever-changing way. This is the world our students are inheriting right now: complex, global, ever-changing.”
When Boynton was introduced in April as Beloit’s president-elect, he talked about why he wants to lead the college. He cited his love for Beloit and the liberal arts, the high caliber and resilience of Beloit’s staff and faculty, and the college’s laser focus on students’ futures.
“At Beloit, we are monomaniacal about our North Star of paying attention to students’ needs,” he said. He described his work and that of Beloit’s faculty and staff as “a shared passion for what is yet to come.” That commitment to student outcomes, an orientation toward the future, is what drew Boynton to teaching and higher ed administration in the first place, and it continues to spur him on.
“Eric’s deep commitment to student-centered learning is an excellent fit for Beloit,” says Marjorie Hass, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. “He is an innovative leader and will build on Beloit’s many strengths as he positions the college for future success.”
Boynton taught at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania for nearly two decades, led multiple departments, and directed the college’s interdisciplinary studies program. He arrived at Beloit in 2019 as the college’s new provost and made a name for himself as someone who could deftly navigate change and uncertainty. His handling of Beloit’s academic program during the Covid pandemic attracted national attention and boosted the college’s reputation.
Boynton sees his path from professor to provost to college president as a natural expansion, what he calls “a widening of the aperture.” His day-to-day responsibilities may have changed when he moved into the president’s office, but his motivation remains the same.
“The classroom was a wonderful space to open up vistas and horizons for students that they wouldn’t have unless you were engaging them with topics and texts and conversations,” he says. “That was always my joy and motivation — using the tools of philosophy to entertain possibilities and reveal the potential of my students. That’s what I was doing in my classroom, and that’s how I think of my work as an administrator — pouring everything into students and seeing the results over a lifetime,” he says.
Sonya Maria Johnson, assistant professor of religious studies and critical identity studies, recalls when Boynton interviewed for Beloit’s provost position. “I remember him talking about how the liberal arts in particular is the antidote to the ills, the hardness that we see in the world and how Beloit College can be on the vanguard of that,” she says. “Eric is so passionately committed to liberal arts training in all of its manifestations, and that deep-seated commitment to interdisciplinarity is something that I think the community who hasn’t met him yet should know.”
Eric Boynton: A brief CV
Ph.D. (philosophy of religion)
Master’s degree (religious studies)
University of Redlands
Professor of philosophy and religious studies, interdisciplinary studies program director, Black studies program director, honors program director
Allegheny College 2002-2019
Provost and Chief Academic Officer
Beloit College 2019-2023
A full house
Boynton was born and raised in Seattle, where his father was a professor of physics at the University of Washington. Instead of following his dad into teaching mathematics and physics, he found himself drawn to the central questions posed by philosophy and religion.
Eric and Julie Boynton met while he was working on his master’s degree in religious studies at Vanderbilt University, and she was an administrator at the university’s psychiatric hospital. He was searching for teaching opportunities in Nashville and discovered an intriguing program for adolescents and their parents, designed to help kids who had run into trouble avoid recidivism. Julie was running the program and hired him for the job. When it eventually ended, the two started dating.
The Boyntons have a son, Jake, a graduate of Allegheny College, who lives in Pittsburgh. Their daughter, Emma, is a junior at Denison University in Ohio.
“She’s home with us this summer and that’s a great joy,” Boynton said of Emma in early August. Father and daughter have a history of cooking together — Boynton says Emma had “mad knife skills” at age four or five — and she’s since surpassed him as a serious chef. Now Boynton takes direction from her, serving as her sous chef. “She’s a wonderful person to be around, but she’s also a real chef and baker. It’s amazing to live with a chef in the house.”
By the time the Boyntons moved into the historic President’s House in late August, Emma was off at school and the nest was empty, but they were far from alone.
Eric Boynton cannot stop smiling when he describes the family’s three dogs. Vivi, a Pomeranian/Japanese Chin mix, is the smallest of the pack. Talulah is a smart and obedient Border Collie/Australian Shepherd, and Jolene, an endearing mutt, is a rescue dog the family adopted during the pandemic.
Over the summer, when repairs to the President’s House delayed their move to campus, Eric and Julie Boynton seized the opportunity to add color to their new home. Over the long Fourth of July holiday, the couple went to work with rollers and brushes, painting the dining room and their bedroom themselves. The previously white-on-white interior is now saturated with bold blues and grays. Even the front door was painted, what Julie Boynton calls “Beloit blue,” signaling a new era.
The Boyntons imagine the house, especially the first floor, as a busy space in the life of the college, a hub for parties and gatherings. “The President’s House has got to be a place of community engagement for the internal campus, but also for the city,” Boynton says.
As classes were about to begin, the Boyntons were getting ready to host Beloit’s football team for dinner, part of a new tradition that invites athletes to the President’s House before their teams’ opening home games. The Boyntons will do the same for the casts of theatre, dance, and music productions.
Solving problems together
Besides cooking in his downtime, Boynton enjoys home improvement projects. Asked what he’d want with him on a deserted island, he says he’d take a chainsaw and a table saw (along with his family, the dogs, and a bottle of Scotch).
In their last home on the Rock River in Edgerton, Wisconsin, he designed and built custom bookshelves complete with crown molding in a small study with 10-foot ceilings.
“I couldn’t care less what car I drive, but it’s fun to work on the house you live in and the yard that you see everyday,” he says. “You can dig into that. I find it’s therapeutic and contemplative.”
During the pandemic, Boynton worked on clearing a path through the woods on their Edgerton property to open a view to the river. With two chainsaws, he did the physical work while his mind grappled with the thorny problems of how students and faculty could safely return to campus. He deliberated over possible solutions and questions. In the face of a global pandemic, what was in the college’s power to change? What wasn’t?
“A lot of the ideas around how to come to terms with the pandemic in our educational situation came to me as I was clearing a path to the river with my chainsaws,” he says. Once the path opened, it revealed a vista of bald eagles perched over the river, fishing from a rocky outcropping. It was like a light at the end of a tunnel.
Boynton may not always wield a chainsaw as he problem-solves, but he likes to think about possibilities, to puzzle over how to clear obstacles and grapple with challenges. “Maybe it comes from my philosophical training, but I don’t have to force myself to think about different paths forward. I just start to sort through different kinds of problems,” he says.
He recounts some of the obstacles presented by Covid. “For me, it’s always wanting to play offense,” he explains. “So, what is the offensive move? What is in my control? What do I have access to?” He likes to think and talk in analogies to uncover possibilities.
But he does not do it alone. He says the best solutions must involve the work and thoughts of many people.
Professor Johnson recalls many instances of collaborating with Boynton, including when she and others worked with him on the seed of an idea he had to form student fellowships. These cohorts are organized around meaningful, shared interests students have, such as creative writing or justice and rights.
“Something I appreciate about Eric is his burning enthusiasm for things,” Johnson says. “His excitement is infectious.” She remembers that excitement fueling the fellowship idea as it evolved and emerged into a vibrant program. She says Boynton cultivates environments of openness in which everyone, including junior faculty, can put forward honest opinions and contribute to ideas and strategies in forthright ways.
“I’m constantly bringing up ideas and thoughts and putting them on the table,” he says. “A lot of them aren’t fully baked enough to become good without the collaboration of the people around the table. I believe I have the propensity to think in a visionary way, but then that vision has to be honed by the people around me.”
In his own words
An excerpt from President Boynton’s May introduction to the community
“… I will work ceaselessly, creatively, and collaboratively with all of you to ensure that our students are supported and transformed by their experiences in and outside the classroom. To ensure that prospective students and their families from across the nation and the world are compelled to attend our college and clearly understand its significant value. To ensure that alumni and donors of the college, friends of the college, and the local community, understand our commitments and are equally compelled to offer significant support and engage in robust partnerships with us.
“To be sure, we are facing some real challenges, and there is much work to be done together in the moments ahead, but I’m excited to be Beloit’s next president because I believe in the future of this institution. I’ve seen the resilience, dedication, the kindness of our staff, faculty, and students. I also know that behind us are alumni who care deeply for this place — and not just for us to muddle through — but to see us thrive. We also have committed partners in the city of Beloit who know that the college’s success is intimately tied to the success and continuing health of the city and vice versa.
“I look forward to leading with all of you a national conversation about what it means to flourish as a small college in the 21st century.”
Teaching in context
In mid-May, only five days after then-Provost Eric Boynton called out graduates’ names from the Commencement stage, he drove to Chicago with 12 students and boarded a plane for Berlin to teach a three-week Global Experience Seminar in Germany and Poland. This was an unusual itinerary for someone poised to become a college president, but despite the whirlwind of change surrounding him, he was honoring the commitment he’d made to teach the course.
A philosopher with a focus on the philosophy of religion, Boynton explains that he’d signed on to teach the course called “Germany and Poland at Memory’s Edge” more than a year earlier. Based in Berlin and Krakow, the seminar examines the cities’ monuments and museums that commemorate the atrocities of the Holocaust, exploring the ways the past is incorporated into narratives and national identities.
Boynton recalls a moment after he’d been selected as the new president when he questioned whether he should go through with teaching the class. But that quickly passed. “The wheels were in motion,” he says. “It just made sense for me to go. I was familiar with the topics, I knew the cities, and I knew people in the cities.”
What he doesn’t say here is that his passion for seeing students discover and achieve their potential in the world has driven him throughout his entire career. Despite the awkward timing, and the double-duty the teaching gig required, reneging on the promise to teach would have been completely out of character.
Kaitlyn Hudetz’25, who was on the seminar, recalls visiting the haunting remains of Auschwitz and feeling an overwhelming connection to the course’s readings. “It’s one thing to study a topic, but it’s a whole other thing to be standing exactly where it took place,” she says.
Hudetz calls it an “unexpected privilege” to have taken this course with Beloit’s next president. “His sincere involvement and interactions revealed a person who is deeply committed to understanding the past and his own students to shape a better future,” she says. “He knew exactly how to lead our conversations, but this wasn’t just a history lesson. It was a profound lesson in empathy and leadership.”
What he’s watching and reading
- “Arnold” (Netflix docuseries about Arnold Schwarzenegger)
- “Ted Lasso”
- “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy”
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism
by Paul D. Miller
Like most small liberal arts colleges, Beloit faces challenges, not least of which are questions about the value of higher education and a shrinking number of college-bound students.
Boynton is realistic about these obstacles, and he’s more than game to lead Beloit into a future in which the college thrives despite them. He says it’s crucial to be creative in demonstrating Beloit’s value and relevance to a public that can often be skeptical.
“Where is the robot-proof education?” he asks. “It’s at a place like Beloit.”
After a summer of soul-searching, with five teams of trustees, faculty, and staff working intensely on crafting a refined vision for Beloit’s future, major changes are already emerging.
“What became clear is that we need to demonstrate to families and prospective students just how intentionally a Beloit education illuminates the pathway from college to career,” Boynton wrote in an August message to faculty and staff. “We also must sustain and depict the joy of living and learning on our activities-rich, residential campus.”
Plans progressing through Beloit’s shared governance process include organizing the college into “schools,” two of which will launch later this academic year in conjunction with Impact Beloit’s career readiness and experiential programs that will move into a refurbished Morse Library next year. The first two schools — the School of Health Sciences and the School of Business, Economics, and Entrepreneurship — both provide professional paths and thematic resources for students that build on their liberal arts experiences and explicitly make connections to careers.
Beloit College’s alumni network is critical to this initiative, as are strong partnerships with organizations in and near the city of Beloit. The schools will complement academic majors rather than replace them.
Another initiative that emerged over the summer will focus on higher standards for Beloit’s residence halls, dining, and events that contribute to a transformational learning environment. Much more is yet to come, and Boynton says he looks forward to meeting alumni and parents to share his vision of how Beloit can flourish. He’s already started traveling and plans to meet with alumni in regions populated by Beloiters.
“I’m energized by the mission of Beloit,” Boynton says. “I love its history. Its DNA is my DNA. I went to a small liberal arts college, and I taught at these kinds of schools all along. At Beloit, we are student-centered and mission-centered at the same time we are innovating to make sure that our educational offerings resonate in the world we occupy,” he says.