Ellison Takes Winding Path to College

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

Melody Y. Hu and Eric Newcomer

(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.


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