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Adams House faculty deans Judith S. Palfrey ’67 and John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67 will retire from their positions at the end of the academic year, the pair announced in a Wednesday email to Adams House affiliates.
When they arrived at Adams House in 1999, Judith and John Palfrey were the only faculty deans unaffiliated with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, working as professors at Harvard Medical School and Boston University of Medicine, respectively. Today, they are the longest-serving pair of current faculty deans.
The pair said in an interview that they are grateful for the two decades they spent serving in their roles at Adams House.
“Many people tell us that this is the best job in the world, and we agree,” Judith Palfrey said. “The reason is that we have wonderful, wonderful students, and the opportunity to be part of a community that supports them.”
The Palfreys said they developed close relationships with students in Adams House, joining residents for meals in the dining hall and even inviting students to their home at Apthorp House on Sunday evenings for quiet study or casual company.
The couple also supported students as they participated in campus activism. Judith Palfrey recalled organizing food deliveries for undergraduates participating in the 2001 occupation of Massachusetts Hall and acting as a go-between for administrators and protesters.
“We were the only people who were allowed in to talk to the students,” Judith Palfrey said. “Both sides trusted us.”
In the email announcing their retirement, the Palfreys emphasized their pride in the house’s legacy of “community consciousness and advocacy.” They also celebrated the centrality of the arts — including music, theater, or literature — in house life.
The pair also wrote in their email that their decision to step down was not “sudden” and had actually been made over a year ago.
“To support the house and college during this complex time, we postponed our retirement until now,” they wrote.
The Palfreys said they strove to keep residents connected and engaged in house life throughout the pandemic by introducing varied virtual programming — such as a winter feast, drag nights, and a Winnie the Pooh reading.
“It’s been an experiment,” John Palfrey said.
“We’ve discovered UberEats works really well,” Judith Palfrey added, explaining how they used free food as an incentive for students to attend events. “When we get the UberEats, students come.”
Adams House resident Esther J. Xiang ’23 said her interactions with the faculty deans have been “so positive.”
“They’re just so uplifting and open and welcoming,” Xiang said. “It’ll be really sad that they’re not here in Adams anymore.”
Raphaëlle Soffe ’21, who also lives in Adams House, said the announcement about the deans’ departure generated “an overwhelming sense of sadness today within the community.”
Soffe recalled how the Palfreys made her feel like she “had a family across the pond” as an international student from the United Kingdom.
In a follow-up email to the Palfreys’ retirement announcement, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana invited Adams House residents to participate in the search for new faculty deans. He welcomed students to submit nominations for the positions and also wrote that students will later have the opportunity to pose questions to potential candidates.
“These 21 years have been wonderful for us, and we will miss all of you more than you can imagine,” the Palfreys wrote in their email. “Adams House will always be close to our hearts.”
—Staff writer Hannah J. Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinezhannahj.
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