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Ellison Takes Winding Path to College

As head of the Ad Board, Ellison makes use of law enforcement background

By Melody Y. Hu and Eric P. Newcomer, Crimson Staff Writers

(Part III of this story appeared on March 24, 2010.)

After pulling his patrol car to the side of the road, John “Jay” L. Ellison, wearing his police uniform, carefully approached a car perched in a ditch.

After the driver hung his hands out the open window, Ellison—short, sprightly, and still in his 20s—approached the vehicle.

Without warning, the man inside the car grabbed Officer Ellison’s left arm, while simultaneously reaching under a pile of clothes to grab a sharpened screwdriver.

In a flash, Ellison whipped his gun out of its holster with his free right arm and pointed the sidearm directly at the interloper’s head.

The fresh-faced officer explained with expletive-laden speech that if the aggressor wanted to make it out of the car alive, then he had only one choice: pull his empty hand out from underneath the clothes.

Recalling the incident years later, he says his words were similar to what would be in a Clint Eastwood movie.

The man’s hand came out without the weapon, and Ellison pulled him out of the car through the open window. Crisis averted.

Looking at Ellison now, sporting hip, rectangular glasses—picked out by his wife, who is finishing her education at the Extension School—and squirming excitedly in his chair in his University Hall office as he talks about his time spent doing research in Syria, one wouldn’t guess that the scholarly administrator once patrolled the streets as a police officer.

Ellison has since traded his gun for a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard and a passion for learning and teaching.

Indeed, it was a strange, circuitous, and unlikely path that led Ellison to Harvard and his current position as the secretary of the Administrative Board.

Colleagues say that his unique combination of experiences also make him an effective head of the Ad Board, Harvard’s primary disciplinary body.

“One wouldn’t imagine someone combining law enforcement with his area of academic interest; he’s just a wonderful combination of opposites,” said Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Noel Bisson, who is also a member of the Ad Board.

AN OFFICER

Born in San Antonio, Texas, Ellison spent the majority of his childhood in Georgia, as evidenced by his noticeable Southern accent.

When his father, a large animal veterinarian, decided to get a masters degree in epidemiology, Ellison moved to Minnesota, where he completed the 11th and 12th grades. Before graduating from Spring Lake Park High School, Ellison was trained as an emergency medical technician.

After graduating, he “tried” to earn a degree in criminal justice studies at the University of Minnesota, but gave up after one semester.

“I was a straight ‘C’ student,” Ellison says without hesitation.

Instead of pursuing a degree, Ellison began work as an EMT. He soon moved back to Georgia, where he took a job as a police officer with the Gwinnett County Police Department.

“We hit the Georgia state line with $12 and everything we had in our U-Haul,” Ellison says of returning south with his wife Polly, his high school sweetheart.

AN ACADEMIC

Ellison, who never envisioned becoming an academic, says he originally decided to attend college because he wanted to spend more time with his son Nathan.

“I didn’t think I’d go to college,” he says. “I had no plan. I went to college because it was better than working.”

But while he was enrolled at Southeastern University, a Bible college in rural Florida, the former cop fell in love with an unusual subject—ancient languages.

“I remember him to be one of the very best students I have ever had in my 31-year career. He had a wonderful attitude and a great aptitude for learning as an older undergrad student,” wrote Steven M. Fettke, who is still a professor at Southeastern, in an e-mail.

After taking a course on the Hebrew Bible, Ellison says he developed an interest in epigraphy, the study of ancient inscriptions and their classification. The course’s instructor, Harvard Divinity School graduate William H. Barnes, encouraged Ellison to apply to his alma mater.

Ellison went on to receive a Master of Theological Studies at the Divinity School and then a Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern Languages in 2002. His doctoral thesis was the result of a year’s research in Syria supported by a Fulbright fellowship. Entitled “A Paleographic Study of the Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ras Shamra/Ugaritic,” the final product was 950 pages long, split into three volumes, and contained 1,800 photographs.

While at Harvard, he has steadily worked his way up the administrative ladder, moving from the head teaching fellow of a large core class to the Allston Burr Senior Tutor—now referred to as the Resident Dean—of Lowell House.

“I think one of the reasons Jay works so well for us is because he was a senior tutor in Lowell,” Pforzheimer House resident dean Lisa Boes says. “He understands what we do.”

Ellison has remained connected to his academic background; he still teaches Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations classes and taught a freshman seminar last semester.

He says he considers teaching an essential part of his job as secretary of the Ad Board.

“The reason [students] are here is the classroom, and I need to have contact with that,” Ellison says. “I get to see [students] at their best.”

AN ADMINISTRATOR

While Ellison no longer wields a gun, he is still an enforcer of the rule of the land. Today his focus is no longer on the laws of the state, but rather the rules of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Ellison’s responsibilities include working with students who have been reported to the Ad Board, collaborating with resident deans, and organizing and participating in Ad Board proceedings. His plethora of previous experiences help him better understand the perspectives of different people involved in the Ad Board process, according to his colleagues.

“Jay is able to wear an incredible number of hats when he’s on the board,” says former Undergraduate Council President Matthew L. Sundquist ’09, who was a member of the Committee to Review the Ad Board.

While Ellison says that he is a “kinder and gentler Jay” than he was during his four years working as a police officer, members of the Ad Board say his experience in law enforcement helped to prepare him to lead Harvard’s disciplinary body.

Ellison’s understanding of the legal system—another by-product of his police work—has also been of use in dealing with Ad Board cases with criminal implications, according to Faculty of the Arts and Sciences Registrar Barry S. Kane, who also sits on the Ad Board.

Moreover, working in the stressful environment of law enforcement prepared Ellison to manage Harvard’s emergency situations, such as the Kirkland shooting last May.

“The fact that I was a police officer means that I understand emergencies,” he says. “I don’t get riled. I know how to handle them.”

While years have passed since Ellison was last paid to wield a gun, he has not lost his affinity for the profession and those who hold it.

When administrators traveled to this year’s Harvard-Yale Game, Ellison rode to New Haven with members of the Harvard University Police Department, recalls Associate Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II.

“I wouldn’t peg him as a cop except when I see him with other cops,” McLoughlin says. “He might as well have a uniform on. They love him.”

—Staff writer Melody Y. Hu can be reached at melodyhu@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at newcomer@fas.harvard.edu.

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