Adult education scholar Arthur Wilson dies at 67

Arthur L. “Butch” Wilson, professor and chair of Cornell’s former Department of Education, died May 10 in Lexington, Virginia. He was 67.

A faculty member from 1999 until his retirement in 2015, Wilson focused his research on adult education and the role of power in shaping educational and social lives.

His scholarly work, centered on developing a theory of adult education program planning with his longtime collaborator, Ron Cervero, was widely recognized for contributing to the field’s understanding of how adult educators can negotiate stakeholder power and interests to plan educational programs more responsibly and democratically.

“It was Butch’s conviction that knowing the intimate relationship between theory and practice and negotiating power democratically and responsibly as an educator would have a meaningful impact on the lives of adult learners,” said Richard Kiely, Ph.D. ’02, Wilson’s doctoral advisee and currently senior fellow in Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives. “Not surprisingly, as an educator, adviser and mentor, Butch modeled the democratic negotiation of power and interests inside and outside the classroom, and his course on program planning at Cornell was often cited by graduate students as their favorite course.”

A longtime adult basic education and General Educational Development (GED) instructor, Wilson did research on adult education philosophy and history; program planning practice in adult and extension education; adult learning, especially transformational learning and socio-cultural theories of learning; and cultural studies in American adult education and postcolonial studies in international adult education and extension. Wilson also had research training and experience in qualitative and historical research methods, with a special interest in alternative research methods.

Wilson wrote, co-wrote or edited six books on adult education program planning and the politics of adult education, including “Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education”(2000). In 2006, he won the Cyril O. Houle Award for outstanding literature in adult education from the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE) for “Working the Planning Table: Negotiating Democratically for Adult, Continuing, and Workplace Education” (2006), co-written with Cervero. He was also the author of numerous book chapters, journal articles and book reviews. The AAACE honored Wilson twice with the Imogene Okes Research Award, for research that contributed significantly to the advancement of adult and continuing education, in 1996 and 1998.

Throughout his career, Wilson took on many editorial roles, including serving as co-editor of Adult Education Quarterly 2000-03. He was adviser and mentor to numerous master’s and doctoral students. Wilson also extensively worked on adult and extension education program for Cornell Cooperative Extension, and served Virginia and Indiana as a state and regional education adviser.

Faculty members in the Department of Education nominated Wilson as chair, a post he retained from 2007 until Cornell closed the department in 2012, a time of “uncertainty and challenge,” said John Sipple, associate professor of development sociology who was formerly in the Department of Education. “Butch committed to the advancement of the faculty and programs within the department, and to the service-learning priorities of the department, and always maintained a deep scholarly basis to his academic, advising and administrative work. He often distinguished between research and scholarship, favoring scholarship that linked directly to real people, societal tensions, and empowerment of individuals and groups.”

Wilson graduated from the University of Virginia in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology. He received a master’s in education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1980 and a doctor of education degree from the University of Georgia in 1991.

Wilson was also an amateur bassist and the member of several bands in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in Ithaca, New York.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara Bryant, two children and extended family members. A memorial service was held June 9 at Cedar Knoll Farm in Lexington, Virginia.

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Lindsey Knewstub