Former Emory College Dean David Minter remembered as scholar, academic leader

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Sept. 7, 2017

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David Minter arrived at Emory in 1981, serving as dean of Emory College and vice president for arts and sciences during pivotal years of growth for the university. (File photo from 1991; Emory Photo/Video)

David L. Minter, former dean of Emory College and vice president of arts and sciences, died Aug. 21 in Houston, Texas, at age 82. A longtime English professor, Minter served as an educational visionary during pivotal years of growth for Emory, then returned to Rice University where he worked until his retirement in 2002.

Appointed by then-Emory President James T. Laney, Minter arrived in 1981 as dean of Emory College, where he oversaw the faculty of arts and sciences. In that capacity, he was responsible for faculty development, promotion and tenure, course development and student recruitment.

Later, he was given the additional title of vice president for arts and sciences. An esteemed scholar of 20th century American literature, with a special interest in the works of William Faulkner, Minter also continued teaching and writing.

“David had a first-class mind, an instinct for making brilliant faculty appointments, and an unrivalled, indeed relentless, passion for making the arts and sciences not only the foundation but also the walls and keystone of Emory's reputation,” recalls Gary Hauk, university historian and senior adviser to the president.

Minter came to Emory shortly after Robert W. Woodruff, the legendary leader of the Coca-Cola Company, and his brother George Woodruff had given Emory a then-record gift of $105 million.

At that time, it was the first nine-figure gift to an institution of higher learning and represented a transformative offering that would help galvanize Emory's advance to the top tier of American research universities.

Minter "worked hand-in-glove with then-President Laney. Together they were architects in shaping the growth and development of the arts and sciences at Emory,” recalls Rosemary Magee, director of Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Books Library, who was hired by Minter to serve as assistant dean at Emory College.

“Together, they were committed to excellence,” she says. “One of their earliest decisions was to use the Woodruff gift to attract outstanding students, the Woodruff Scholars, and highly recognized faculty scholars, the Woodruff Professors, with the belief that the strongest students and the strongest scholars would be beacons of inspiration to us all.”

While at Emory, Minter was credited for overseeing key faculty hires; guiding the expansion of new programs and departments, including the Institute for Women’s Studies (forerunner to the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies); shepherding Emory students into prestigious scholarship and fellowship programs; expanding study abroad programs; and advancing need-based financial aid, Magee recalls.

“Within his vision, one way for Emory to continue to rise in the constellation of American universities was for students of any background to be able to come here and study,” she says. “In his view that approach could put us at a competitive advantage and enhance the campus experience for all.”

Inspiring leader, impassioned educator 

As an administrator, Minter is remembered for his vision, creativity, intellectual curiosity and a steadfast belief in the deep, clear importance of quality teaching. He was an academic leader who never lost his love of the classroom.

A 1983 profile in Emory Magazine recalls Minter as “one of the most imaginative members of President James. T. Laney’s administration. More than one person has described him as an educational visionary.

"When he gathers his staff for its weekly Monday morning meetings, there is, according to one administrator, ‘always something to be excited about: some new program that’s moving forward, some new idea that’s being discussed, some new hurdle that has to be jumped.’”

Magee describes Minter as “an absolutely phenomenal human being with a brilliant mind, and very, very focused on his ambitions for Emory."

“He was impatient for Emory to be on a trajectory of academic eminence," she says. "And he deeply influenced me, because given the size and scale of Emory at the time, I had the special opportunity to see up-close how to think big and how to act inclusively.”

While at Emory, Minter remained an active scholar and is the author of many books and articles. His publishing life includes a role editing the Norton Critical Edition of William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” He also served as co-editor of acclaimed literary surveys including “The Harper American Literature” and “The Columbia Literary History of the United States.”

Minter penned “Heirs of a Changing Promise: A Cultural History of the American Novel, 1890-1940,” and “William Faulkner: His Life and Work,” his most successful book, which has been translated into several languages.

A love of literature

Born in Texas oil country in 1935, Minter and his twin sister, Judith, were the fifth and sixth children of the Rev. Kenneth Minter, a scholarly Methodist minister, and his wife, Frances Hennessey Minter, a former schoolteacher.

When he was 13, his parents were killed in a car accident, leaving Minter to be raised by siblings and relatives. His humble beginnings and hard childhood would shape his work ethic, ambitions and commitment to supporting financial aid. 

As a child, Minter became a voracious reader, according to an Emory Magazine interview. That love of books would lead him to North Texas State University in Denton, where he received a BA and MA in English. He continued on to Yale University to study theology, where he received a Bachelor of Divinity and a PhD in American Studies. In 1969, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.

He began his academic career as a lecturer first at Yale and then Hamburg University in Germany. In 1967, he returned to Texas to begin his teaching career in the English Department at Rice University, where he received tenure after only two years.

After his time at Emory, Minter returned to Rice in 1990 as the Libbie Shearn Moody Professor of English, where he would go on to serve as English Department chair, interim provost, interim vice-provost and university librarian. He was a three-time winner of the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching and the Student Association Mentor Recognition Award. 

In 1999, he was named the Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English, a chair endowed by one of his former students.

Following an academic career that spanned 35 years, Minter retired from teaching in 2002. He is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Caroline Minter, of Houston; a son, Emory alumnus Christopher Minter, of Dripping Springs; a daughter, Frances Epstein, of Tucson, Arizona; and grandsons Aiden and Seaton Epstein.

Graveside services were held Aug. 22 in Woodville, Texas.