Barry Qualls


“You need to bring a level of liveliness to a class,” says Barry Qualls, who, in addition to teaching, was at various times vice president for undergraduate education at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, chair of the English department, director of the English graduate program, and dean of humanities of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Nick Romanenko

As a young child growing up in a coal-mining region of eastern Kentucky, son of a railroad machinist and a mother passionate about reading, Barry V. Qualls was a changed young man after encountering William Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, a satire of 19th-century British society. Little could Qualls have known that, in a generation, he himself would begin changing the lives of thousands of Rutgers students.

For 45 years, from 1971 until this spring, Qualls, a professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, enthralled English majors with his lectures, which amounted to dramatic, humorous performances worthy of PBS’s Masterpiece. From the moment they heard the beguiling lilt to Qualls’s voice, inflected with the southern gentility of his Florida upbringing as a teenager, students fell into a rapt trance, even those who had just a passing interest in 19th- century English literature, but had heard they had to check out this guy’s class.

“You need to bring a level of liveliness to a class; I was notorious for being loud and lively,” says Qualls, who had always wanted to be a high school teacher, but got a master’s and Ph.D. from Northwestern University (after graduating from Florida State University) to become a university professor. “You can’t teach that to anybody; you are born with it, I suppose. But there are ways of suggesting passion about a topic that are not necessarily performative in the way that I did it. A student once did a fiendish imitation of me, and I said, ‘Well, I have been doing that all my life.’”

The standard-bearer for the numerous subjects he taught was his class “The Victorian Novel,” allowing Qualls to give an inspired exposition of the 19th-century English novel. Qualls—in the tradition of Charles Dickens who gave public readings from his novels—regularly read aloud passages from books under class discussion. Until his last lecture in early May, taking place in Murray Hall before a packed classroom, he couldn’t contain himself as he read from The Secret Sharer. “I just love that phrase!” he said, concluding a passage from Joseph Conrad’s novel. “I know I get enthusiastic, but that’s all right.”

For more than four decades, his devotion to education—specifically, students becoming proficient readers and writers—and the welfare of his brood extended to not only teaching courses in Victorian poetry, English literature, and the Bible as literature, but also helping students outside the classroom. Qualls’s undergraduate and graduate students cherished his counsel as an academic adviser, a beacon of generosity, nurturance, and wisdom. One of his many teaching honors came in 2006 when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named him the Professor of the Year.

“I was delighted by the honor, of course, but I thought it was good for the university because it indicated that there was a culture of teaching here,” says Qualls, who had just become vice president for undergraduate education at Rutgers–New Brunswick, a title he held until 2013. Over the years, he also served as chair of the English department, director of the English graduate program, and dean of humanities of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “The award also brought attention to our effort to change undergraduate education at Rutgers–New Brunswick.”

Indeed, Qualls’s devotion to assuring the quality of education for undergraduates led former Rutgers president Richard L. McCormick to call on him in 2004 to chair the Task Force on Undergraduate Education, part of the enormous campaign, known as the Transformation of Undergraduate Education, that improved the learning experience for undergraduate students at Rutgers–New Brunswick. To no small degree, it was Qualls’s good intentions, disarming manner, institutional knowledge, and integrity that led to its successful adoption

As he retires to pursue his interests—opera, ballet, the latest on Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand—Qualls is pleased by the quality of entering students, their enthusiasm for learning, and the myriad choices that Rutgers offers them, from the Byrne lecture series to research and opportunities with a faculty mentor. After all, the education of students, obvious as it would seem to be, always came first in Qualls’s mind.

Walking across Voorhees Mall to head into his last class, Qualls felt a gust of anxiety pass through him, a common state of mind before performing a lecture. He wondered to himself: “Do I have this material prepared in a way that the students will remember?”

To his legions of former students, there was never a doubt.