Story by Erin Luhmann ’08
Psychology professor Tim Robinson estimates he has written more than 800 letters of recommendation for students over the span of his 45-year career at Gustavus.
“If I have about an average of about five people a year to write for and about four letters apiece, it’s about 20 per year,” he said, contemplating a figure that underscored his priorities. “When it comes down to it, I really enjoyed the students more than anything else.”
As the retirement of professors Robinson, Richard Martin and Barbara Simpson coincides with commencement this weekend, many are taking time to commemorate their contributions—from their dedication as teachers to their research as distinguished scholars. Combined, this trio has given more then 130 years of service to the College, imbuing the Psychological Science Department with a legacy of scholarly ambition, community, and mentorship.
The Gustavus psychology department was established in 1910, as one of the first in the state. From the start, it attracted devoted, forward-thinking faculty members who cultivated one of the most popular majors on campus.
Martin came to the campus in 1970, after acquiring his Ph.D. from the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. In an act of faith, he declined an offer on a position at a state school and pursued a developmental psychologist opening at Gustavus because he envisioned himself in a liberal arts environment.
“I didn’t know very much about the school, but I did know about the Nobel Conference and I imagined that this was my dream job—a place where I could continue my own learning while also teaching students,” he wrote.
Looking back on his success on the hill, he credited John Kendall, former president and chair of the psychology department, with granting faculty the freedom to handle their research and coursework however they saw fit.
“It was a wonderful environment in which the three of us were able to begin our careers,” Martin said.
Over the course of his teaching career, he chaired two Nobel Conferences and created the Adult Psychology class that became a program staple. He has enjoyed teaching the course so much that he plans to teach the course again during the fall semester of 2014.
“This has been my signature course,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoy it and I want to teach it one more time during a semester when it’s my only obligation. I am looking forward to it.”
He will also transition into the role of a research professor for the next three years, which will allow him to continue his research with Dr. Mark Kruger and involvement with students who are working on their research projects.
Simpson joined the department in 1971, shortly after Martin. She fell into a temporary position and ended up staying for 43 and a half years, teaching clinical psychology.
“I stayed because I was impressed both with the students here and those faculty members who had preceded me,” she said. “Everybody on the faculty was both incredibly able and hard working. Collectively, and individually, they eschewed pretense and held a deep respect for truth telling.”
She appreciated how candid her colleagues were, along with the camaraderie and respect that held them accountable to one another. After completing a double major in psychology and sociology—a rare combination at the time—she found the support she needed to put down roots and creatively explore her area of expertise. This included working as a student counselor on campus and captivating her students through quirky class exercises.
Jan Matuseski ’79 recalled a senior seminar where Simpson handed out oranges and instructed students to explore them with all their senses—an exercise that included rolling the oranges around their faces.
“It seemed really ‘out there,’” said Matuseski. “A few nervous laughs and the lesson became a template for discovering the world beyond the obvious. It was a time of growth and exploration nurtured with intellect, talent, and humor.”
Simpson plans to devote her first few months of retirement to reading mystery novels, before figuring out what to do next. She says the anticipation of retirement has left her feeling rather introspective.
Robinson came to Gustavus just two years before Simpson, in 1969. He was a ’65 Gustie grad with a graduate degree in physiological psychology.
“The thing that made me really want to come was they were setting up a new program,” he said. “I saw Gustavus as an expanding university and they said that they were willing to let me do what I wanted, professionally. So I took the job and have been here ever since.”
In the course of his 45-year career at Gustavus, he developed the behavioral neuroscience psychology curriculum, directed the Nobel Conference for eight years, and served a five-year term as an associate dean.
“The department has been a very stable department for very many years,” he said. “We’ve had a bunch of really talented people. We all did rather different sorts of things, but we’re all very supportive of each other.”
While he won’t be instructing any more, Robinson plans to stay involved as Dr. Krueger’s lab assistant this fall. Beyond this, he plans to spend more time with his new grandson and to pursue his interests in music and travel, beginning with a cruise on the Norwegian shore in June and a jazz cruise in January.
While he’s busy exploring new sounds and places, graduates of the psychology department will continue to push the boundaries.
“We have a long tradition of nationally-known psychologists that come from Gustavus,” Robinson said.
Jim Behrends ’74, director of adult and family services for Olmsted county, is one of the more than 2,500 psychology major graduates who studied under the three retirees. With Robinson as his advisor, he took what he had learned about behavior and analysis in the classroom and applied it at an internship at the state hospital in St. Peter. He has been successfully championing for a shift toward home care over institutionalized care for the mentally ill ever since.
These retirees have inspired graduates to excel in academic and clinical settings, both directly and loosely-related to the field of psychology.
“I use my degree every day, as far as I’m concerned,” said Susie Heim ’83. “To have an understanding of how people think is an important thing.”
Susie and her husband, Steve Heim ’81, were so appreciative of the education and mentorship they had received that they decided to help create a new endowed professor position in this trio’s honor. The Martin, Robinson, and Simpson Endowed Professor of Psychological Science position will provide the department with funds to recruit and retain talented faculty.
Everyone kept the news a secret until the big reveal last week, at an alumni-hosted retirement party.
“The three of us were just absolutely amazed that they managed to pull this whole thing off without us knowing anything about it,” said Robinson, who called the honor a “really wonderful recognition.”
“I hope that this can continue to keep the department very strong and current, going into the future,” he said.
About the Author
Erin Luhmann graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 2008 with a major in English and a minor in peace studies. She then taught English in Kyrgyzstan as a Peace Corps Volunteer (’08-’10) and completed a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013. As a graduate student, she won a New York Times contest to travel and report alongside columnist Nicholas Kristof in West Africa. She now works as a freelance reporter in Minnesota.