An interesting turn happened to J. Alden Stout on his path to what he believed would lead him to a successful accounting career.
While an undergraduate student at Utah Valley State, he took a required general education core class in ethics. It turned out to be a seminal moment for him.
“I just loved the class, so I took another as an elective … loved that elective and then realized that I really had a passion for philosophy.”
Stout was hooked. He loved the questions his coursework made him consider.
“‘What’s the meaning of life? What purpose should I have? What’s gonna make me genuinely happy? What’s the best way to live? What’s really true and real?’
“It was fun because it was one of the first times that my mind opened and I really thought for myself in a new way … and I started determining answers to my own (big) questions,” Stout said.
A new path and switching majors
His newfound passion coincided with the university’s creation of a new philosophy degree and Stout became one of its first philosophy majors.
“The faculty in that program mentored me and encouraged me to go to grad school. I ended up getting my Ph.D. in philosophy at Purdue. While at Purdue, I learned that I loved teaching and wanted to go to a school that put teaching first,” Stout said.
After graduate school, Stout was offered a faculty position at Morningside University, a small private institution in Sioux City, Iowa. He spent 10 years there and along the way his journey took another unexpected turn.
“I had no idea … I’m not sure anybody actually ever chooses to go into higher ed administration. I went into it after the provost (at Morningside) continued to ask me to take on more service and eventually recruited me as his associate vice president of academic affairs.”
He found his “own talents were best utilized by working with others to achieve the greatest good for the students and university … and my goal is to make a positive impact that improves the lives of as many students as I can.”
Stout has refocused his passion on Newman University and supporting its students. He began his new role as vice president of academic affairs (VPAA) Jan. 18. He believes Newman and the greater Wichita region has a lot to offer him and his family, as it does current and future students.
“I love small colleges and universities that are student-centered. Newman caught my attention first by its mission and code. The goal of empowering students to transform the world is powerful. The Newman Code is a necessary component of that mission that asks us to respect the dignity of others, act with integrity, and embrace all peoples.”
The city of Wichita is a draw
“Wichita is a beautiful city and I love the Midwest. More importantly, for Newman it provides an opportunity for a strong relationship where Newman students have opportunities for experiential learning like internships and co-ops, and where the support for distinctive programs that serve the needs of the students in the region can be developed. One of Newman’s unique and great strengths is its location,” Stout said.
He regards developing partnerships and fostering an innovative and collaborative climate within the university as essential to help the school adapt and to become nimble as it prepares for current and future challenges.
“It is developing good relationships among the faculty and staff so that you build trust and they know you’re looking out for the best interest of the students and the institution. Once you have the trust built then you’re able to create the processes that still have quality control but are move quickly enough to meet the demands of a dynamic changing market of students,” Stout said.
Experience leading academic innovation
While at Morningside, he had experience leading a faculty innovation group that met over lunches and worked to create a list of ideas to improve teaching and enhance the student experience.
“We had 30 faculty over three years who were generating these innovative ideas and proposing them to the administration to implement. When you have that, you get this energized culture of innovation …people trying to think of how to do things new and it grows,” Stout said. “And, it becomes part of the culture of the community.”
Headwinds in higher ed
He is confident that a strong, energized community is crucial to navigating the choppy waters of higher education. One hurdle on the horizon is the rising public skepticism over the value of college.
“Students and parents are growing more skeptical about the value of higher education,” Stout said. “The data are clear that getting a college degree will help your lifetime earnings and is a worthwhile investment purely from an economic perspective. One way that we can help address that skepticism is to show much more directly and intentionally the path from curriculum to career. Additionally, we need to expand the scope of the value proposition to include the transformational experiences that occur at Newman. Students need to know we will help them gain professional success and lead meaningful lives.”
Stout also understands the realities of diminishing demographics in traditional undergraduate students in the coming years need to inform how Newman moves forward.
“We need to look at new populations of students and develop programs that are relevant to that population. We need to think about new programs that meet the contemporary needs of employers and are attractive to diverse populations of students. We can show them our programs are flexible enough to fit with their working life, advance their career goals, and enhance their contributions as citizens to the common good.”
While there is much effort and planning ahead, Stout’s initial assignment is to listen to the faculty, staff, students and fellow administrators to understand things that are going well and things that need to be addressed. He will also work with former interim VPAA Jill Fort to better understand all he can about the academic processes that go on at Newman. His attention will then focus on a strategic vision and objectives that will be most impactful to increase enrollment.
Newman lives its mission
One aspect of Newman that he already has grown to appreciate is how the university community truly embraces and lives its mission.
“For example, when I was interviewing (for the position), my wife decided to walk around the campus to do some exploring. Students could tell she didn’t know the campus well and many at various times came up to her and asked her if they could help give her directions. It is that kind of experience that shows you the type of community that exists at Newman. I was able to return in mid-December after I had accepted the position. There is a genuine level of community and support that exists here. I’m looking forward to being part of that community experience,” Stout said.
He met his wife, Valerie Hennings, at Morningside, where she serves as the director of civic engagement and associate professor of political science.
“She is excited about being part of the Newman community and the wonderful city of Wichita,” Stout said.
Alden’s passion away from work
Stout was born in the Dallas area but loves the Midwest where he has lived (Indiana and Iowa) for the past 15 years. He is a Dallas Cowboys fan, an avid reader, especially books about current events and politics. He also enjoys bowling, ax-throwing, playing Texas Hold’em, and listening to the blues.
He is looking forward to exploring Wichita, especially its restaurants, fine arts and sports.