Brian Ballentine ’97 shares how his skepticism as a member of the first class to learn under the new Brewster Model came full circle. The Model’s themes of communication, technology, and collaboration have informed his work as an educator and top-level administrator at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey—including helping to develop and broaden the economy of Botswana.
By Jim Collins
Brian Ballentine ’97 had a rough couple of years at Brewster. He was a day student, which, back then, set him apart from the daily experience of attending a primarily boarding school. He had little interest in his studies.
“I remember my grade was around 60 in one of my history classes,” Ballentine recalls, “and my teacher’s mid-term report said, ‘Brian continues to rely on his charm to get by.’ ” More significantly, as Brewster embraced a radical new approach to teaching, Brian’s class felt a bit like test dummies as the new plan disrupted classroom norms.
The school had recently hired an Australian educator named Alan Bain as associate headmaster. Bain’s charge was to shake up the status quo and create a new academic program that would use emerging technologies and pedagogy to improve outcomes at a school. Bain’s new program emphasized working in small teams, with expectations and coursework tailored to students’ individual capacities, and the extensive use of laptop computers for collaboration and near-constant communication with classmates and teachers. In time, the visionary approach would become known as “The Brewster Model” and serve as a best-practices example emulated by independent schools across the country. But as Ballentine and other members of the Class of 1997 experienced it, the beginning of the learning curve was rocky. It isolated them among the Harkness tables and re-configurable classroom spaces of the renovated attic of the old Academy building. They had to lug bulky Macintosh laptops across campus. Other students called them “Bubble Babies.” For a senior project, Ballentine—who thought of himself as an “old-school kind of student who liked pen and paper”—wrote a thesis that was harshly critical of the new model. He went out of his way to share it with senior administrators, including Bain.
But Ballentine’s imagination was fired at Brewster, as well. He remembers his first time sitting in Miss Shea’s English class and thinking, This is what a teacher could be like. This is what a real class could be like. He took an AP English class with Mr. Friend, and felt the thrill of being pushed to his limits by a consummate scholar. A physics teacher recognized Ballentine’s growing intellectual curiosity, and suggested he consider the seminar-style, Great-Books-based program at St. John’s College. Ballentine went to St. John’s Santa Fe campus, where he majored in the philosophy and history of mathematics.
The seeds planted at Brewster continued to flourish for Ballentine: He taught English in a high school in Gérardmer, France, and later spent a formative year with AmeriCorps VISTA, raising money and developing training programs for GED students in Providence, R.I. He earned a Master’s and then a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Brown University. There, Ballentine found himself serving on a committee with the dean of the graduate school, and discovered that he was more passionate about improving students’ outcomes than he was about the dissertation waiting for him back in his apartment. He learned that his background had prepared him to engage in the big and difficult conversations going on in higher education—much like he had in that Brewster thesis. He brought real-world experience and a humanities lens to his understanding of organizational behavior.
Ballentine landed a job at Rutgers University, where he oversaw the Aresty Research Center for Undergraduates for three years. Again, focused on outcomes, he raised the Center’s profile, doubling the student participation and establishing science-style research assistant positions in the humanities departments. He launched an alumni network and established corporate partnerships. He created and led faculty workshops for driving evidence-based approaches to mentoring. In 2016 he was appointed Chief of Staff in the office of the president.
In his new role, Ballentine leads the executive team that implements President Robert Barchi’s agenda, and engages daily with the inner circles of a major state university, from the CFO to the provost, from the athletic director to the compliance officer. “In some ways, it’s like running a small city,” he says. “Seventy thousand students. Thirty thousand faculty and staff. It’s dynamic. Unpredictable. With lots of diverse stakeholders.” He somehow finds time—mostly in summer—to continue his teaching and academic writing. Recent peer-reviewed articles include an analysis of language in Renaissance England. Ballentine has taught a seminar on The Hobbit, and used The Handmaid’s Tale as a jumping off point for the exploration of censorship.
Along the arc of his journey in higher education, Ballentine began to see his Brewster experience in a new light. He recognizes how well-prepared he was for the rigorous, seminar-based courses at St. John’s. He knew already how to collaborate with people with diverse viewpoints. “What people today call emotional intelligence I started developing as a freshman at Brewster,” he says, “though I didn’t know it at the time.” He admits that he liked the small groups and team approach to problem solving. “It turns out that’s been a big part of how I work. I don’t know if Brewster taught me that, or if it was something I simply discovered there.” He resisted the new methods back then, but says he “wouldn’t have thrived in the old lecture-style classrooms.”
In 2016, he wrote a letter to Alan Bain, now a widely-published author and consultant on educational reform. In the letter, Ballentine recounts coming across a copy of the paper he’d written criticizing Bain’s new model at Brewster, and in particular how its “scientific approaches” sanitized the art of teaching. He recalled sharing the paper and receiving Bain’s gracious invitation to stop by and discuss it in person—an invitation the young Ballentine didn’t dare accept. “Looking back,” Ballentine wrote, “I was impressed at your willingness to engage detractors. I imagine the job at Brewster was not always easy. I have a book called Scientific Teaching sitting on my desk, which I use almost as an instruction manual for my courses. I guess I’ve come around to your point of view. Thanks for being supportive 20 years ago when I was just starting to think about these issues.” He received a gracious response from Bain, who said he had learned much from the Brewster experience about teaching and managing change—and that this exchange of letters felt like a completion of the conversation he had offered back in 1997.
Over the past years, Ballentine has had a similar opportunity to think about a big and ambitious new model, about boldly venturing into foreign territory. In February 2019, Rutgers cemented a deepening connection with Botswana, a country on a continent where Rutgers has more than 100 faculty members working and teaching. Formally known as the Botswana-Rutgers Mahube Partnership for Transformation, the new joint initiative promises to exchange knowledge through technology and to develop programs that help move Botswana from a natural resource-based economy to a knowledge-based one. The broad partnership will focus on health care, information technology, higher education and research, entrepreneurship and innovation, and civic leadership.
In March 2019, Ballentine traveled to Botswana with a small delegation of Rutgers administrators to meet with President Mokgweetsi Masisi and members of his cabinet. Along with Eric Garfunkel, Rutgers’ vice president for global affairs, Ballentine will play a lead role. The implications and opportunities for global education—for personal growth and life-changing empowerment—are huge. The themes of technology and collaboration and communication, so central to The Brewster Model, will be key.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t note that after this feature was completed, the president of Rutgers University tapped Brian Ballentine to move from Chief of Staff to Senior Vice President for Strategy and Senior Adviser to the President. This role, and the office it oversees, is a four-year pilot aimed at tackling major initiatives for the University. We congratulate Dr. Ballentine on this achievement, and plan on sharing an update in a future issue.