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University Remembers Longtime BBS Professor James C. Bartlett
June 2, 2019
Dr. James C. Bartlett
Dr. James C. Bartlett, Ashbel Smith Professor of Psychology and a faculty member for 44 years in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) at The University of Texas at Dallas, died on June 1 at the age of 70.
Bartlett, whose scholarly specialties ranged broadly over cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology, made many significant contributions to the research and teaching missions of the University. In addition to these core faculty responsibilities, Bartlett provided leadership to UT Dallas in a variety of important capacities. He served as associate dean of the School of Human Development (the prior name of the School of BBS) from 1989 to 1992; as dean of graduate studies and research from 1992 to 1994; as speaker of the UT Dallas faculty from 1996 to 1998; as chair of the UT System Faculty Advisory Council from 2004 to 2005; and as head of the PhD program in cognition and neuroscience from 2004 to 2015. Most recently, Bartlett served as the interim dean of BBS from 2015 to 2018, providing crucial leadership after the death of Dean Bert Moore.
“Dr. Bartlett was the perfect colleague,” said Dr. Inga Musselman, provost and vice president for academic affairs at UT Dallas. “In addition to his distinguished research and teaching career as a faculty member, Jim, over the course of 30 years, stepped into key administrative positions, sometimes under suboptimal circumstances, imparting his carefully honed leadership skills and inherently optimistic and happy outlook. He was always uplifting. It is with particular gratification that, as provost, I have been able, through the resources provided by the philanthropy of Margaret McDermott, to create in Jim’s honor a new endowed faculty position for BBS, the James Bartlett Professorship.”
Dr. James C. Bartlett delivered the keynote address at the summer 2018 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony, congratulating the students on their perseverance and reflecting on his experiences in the 1970s as a psychology doctoral student at Yale University.
Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, executive vice president of UT Dallas, who worked with Bartlett for over two decades, stated, “Jim was a faculty colleague who everyone could enjoy and treasure, particularly those in positions of administrative responsibility. His professional accomplishments were impeccable, his sense of duty and loyalty to the University was always foremost, and he manifested a cheerfully positive demeanor that was unimpaired by his concurrent mature acceptance of human realities.”
Bartlett received his bachelor’s degree from UT Austin in 1970 and his PhD from Yale University in 1975 — the same year he took his first and only faculty appointment at UT Dallas, in the first year that the school admitted undergraduates. He was promoted to full professor in 1990. Bartlett was a member of the American Psychological Society, the Psychonomic Society, the Southwestern Psychological Association and the Configural Processing Consortium.
Dr. Margaret Tresch Owen, who served as interim dean of BBS from 2018 to 2019, remarked, “Dr. Bartlett served our school and our larger community of scholars throughout the University for many long and fruitful years. He served us well, and in so many capacities. Throughout the years, I got to know Jim as someone ever curious, thoughtful and generous. He lived a life full of meaning, and lived it fully. I feel enormous gratitude for his strength, ever positive outlook, wisdom and support for our University community, and especially for the special mentorship and care he gave our students.”
Bartlett’s research focused on how people receive and retain nonverbal information — from melodies to faces and places. He also was among the first to research holistic memory processing — producing pioneering behavioral evidence that the brain processes faces as a unit, and not by their individual components. In a 2012 study, he found that experienced chess players view the board holistically to a greater extent than novices.
“Dr. Bartlett was the perfect colleague. In addition to his distinguished research and teaching career as a faculty member, Jim … stepped into key administrative positions, sometimes under suboptimal circumstances, imparting his carefully honed leadership skills and inherently optimistic and happy outlook.”
“I want my research to help people, but at the same time, I’ve always had an instinctive desire to discover things,” he said in 2015. “I tell my students it’s like Christmas morning when they come in with new data from a completed experiment. I don’t know where that comes from — it’s just instinctive. It’s the kind of thing that brings me joy.”
Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas, reflected, “To work with Jim was one of the most inspiring and intellectually stimulating experiences of my entire academic career. I had the incredibly great fortune to have Jim serve first as one of my dissertation professors to later becoming a colleague, an active research collaborator, and lastly dean. In research meetings, minds were always stretched in provocative, expansive new directions. Most cherished was our decades of friendship with honest and supportive celebration of life.”
Bartlett’s work on holistic processing has placed him as an expert on the reliability of eyewitness testimony, especially among the elderly. He expressed a continued desire to dive into uncharted scientific waters.
“I think way too often in science, people research things because other people are researching them,” he said. “However, it is not that hard to just open your eyes and say, ‘Here’s a problem someone should be working on, even though no one is.’”
He delivered the keynote address at the summer 2018 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony, reflecting on his experiences as a psychology doctoral student at Yale.
“In many situations, in graduate school and beyond, I found that it is your peers that can be our best teachers and most inspirational mentors,” Bartlett said. “If you are lucky enough to be working with and around really great peers, people who are doing great work, and if you are able to cooperate productively and get along with them, well, just enjoy the ride.”