Beloved Dean and Nationally Renowned Historian, Jan Ellen Lewis, Dies at 69

Jan Ellen Lewis, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences – Newark (SASN) and Professor of History at Rutgers University—Newark, passed away on Tuesday, August 28, 2018, surrounded by her family and loved ones. She was 69.

Lewis served on the Rutgers-Newark faculty for more than four decades, including leadership of the school since 2013. Chancellor Nancy Cantor, in a message to the University, said “[Jan] was a brilliant historian who challenged orthodoxies about the fullness of our understanding of early America (and early American heroes), a teacher and mentor who supported her students through triumphs and challenges, a colleague who nurtured the next diverse generation of the professoriate, an academic leader who cultivated boundary-crossing scholars and scholarship across the full breadth of the arts, humanities, and sciences, and a friend whom you could always count on to tell it as it is, no sugar coating from Jan, even as she handed you the latest Donna Leon mystery to take your mind elsewhere, for a time.”

Jan Ellen Lewis at Commencement in May 2018

As Dean of SASN, Lewis was committed to hiring faculty and staff with diverse backgrounds, scholarship, skills, and opinions, but shared common threads: dedication to their students, to public scholarship, and to the Rutgers-Newark mission of engaging with and being a part of the greater community of Newark. Faculty and staff alike recall her as a mentor and supporter and a candid, but fair critic of their work. “She was a great reader and honest critic - whether reading difficult scholarship, good mysteries, or her students’ and colleagues’ work,” says James Goodman, Distinguished Professor of History and Creative Writing at SASN, who was a friend and colleague for 21 years. “I gave her everything, always with some trepidation, because of her honesty, but any writer or scholar would have been stupid not to.  I always loved reading and commenting upon - and then talking about - her work as well.”

Lewis collaborated across departments and with other schools at RU-N on several interdisciplinary programs, and even co-taught a course with the former dean of the Rutgers Law School, Ronald Chen. “It’s not arts or sciences,” she once said when describing the school, “but arts AND sciences.” For Lewis, it was also arts and law and business and medicine. Traditional boundaries did not matter. “She was a fierce advocate for the liberal arts and sciences, all of them, not just history and the humanities closest to her heart,” said Goodman.  “She is one of the unsung heroes of our wildly successful MFA program.”

Lewis was a tireless mentor, teacher, and advocate for her students. She took great pride in the school’s commitment to providing real-world research opportunities for undergraduate students. She genuinely cared for the student body and regularly engaged in dialogue with them, working together to address any needs or concerns as they arose.

Jan Lewis’s scholarship changed the way we think about gender and the family in the early American republic, and she championed the careers of many younger historians whose work touches every corner of American history

Prior to becoming the dean of SASN, Lewis had twice served as acting dean. Lewis taught American History at RU-N since 1977. She also taught PhD level courses at Rutgers-New Brunswick and served as a visiting professor at Princeton University. She was a nationally renowned specialist in colonial and early national history, with a particular interest in gender, race, and politics. She was the author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson’s Virginia (1983) and the co-editor of An Emotional History of the United States (1998); Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture (1999); and The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, & the New Republic (2002), as well as many articles and reviews, including a recent op-ed for the New York Times, which she co-authored with her son, James Grimmelmann. She co-authored a college-level American history textbook, Of the People (Oxford University Press).

Lewis held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies, the Center for the History of Freedom at Washington University, and the International Center for Jefferson Studies. She chaired the New Jersey Historical Commission and the American Historical Association's Committee on Women Historians and served on many boards, including the Advisory Board of the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and the editorial board of The American Historical Review. She was an elected member of the American Antiquarian Society and a Fellow of the Society of American Historians and a past president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. In December 2016, Lewis was appointed to a three-year term on the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Board of Trustees for her “extensive professional experience and knowledge as an educator and historian, as well as her commitment to public access to humanities and history programming,” according to Executive Director Briann G. Greenfield. 

Jan Lewis featured in Rutgers News, 1984
Jan Lewis featured in Rutgers News, 1984

Lewis received her A.B. in history from Bryn Mawr College; she earned master’s degrees in both history and American culture, as well as a Ph.D. in history, from the University of Michigan. She began teaching history at RU-N shortly afterwards.

“Jan Lewis’s scholarship changed the way we think about gender and the family in the early American republic, and she championed the careers of many younger historians whose work touches every corner of American history,” said friend and colleague Brian Murphy, Director of the Honors College at RU-N. “Jan was also one of the kindest, most generous historians I have ever met, and it was an honor to be able to work alongside her here at Rutgers on behalf of students and an institution she cared about so deeply.”

Lewis met her husband, Barry Bienstock, at RU-N where they were both teaching. They were married in 1989. Bienstock is the Martin Sokolow Chair in History at the Horace Mann School.

“Jan and her husband Barry Bienstock, a history teacher and historian, were lovers and connoisseurs of classical music,” Goodman recalls. “I can’t tell you how many times, after a long and crisis filled day in the dean’s office, she would drive back to Maplewood and then she and Barry would drive into the city for a concert, not starting until 8pm, at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.  Just a few hours after they returned to Maplewood, she’d be up and getting ready to drive back to Newark.” Lewis was also a proud and doting grandmother, always eager to talk about her grandchildren’s latest interests and antics.

They lived in Maplewood, NJ. Lewis is survived by one son, James, a daughter-in-law, Aislinn, and two grandchildren, Beatrice, 5, and Ida, 1. She is also survived by a sister, Beth.


The Office of the Chancellor and the SASN Deans Office will host a celebration of Jan’s life and impact on October 13, 2018 from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Essex Room of the Paul Robeson Campus Center at RU-N, 350 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Newark, NJ.  All are invited to attend.

A scholarship fund to support undergraduate students at RU-N has been established in Jan’s name.  All those wishing to contribute may do so by check made out to the Rutgers University Foundation, and mailed to:

Patricia Margulies
Dean of Advancement
School of Arts and Sciences-Newark
360 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Blvd
Newark, NJ 07102

Those wishing to make a credit card gift or any other type of contribution can call Ms. Margulies at: 973-353-1624.