Interim Provost Robin W. Morgan became the University of Delaware’s 11th provost on July 1 2018, marking the first time a woman has held the role of UD’s chief academic officer in a permanent capacity.
Just prior to her position as interim provost, Morgan was chair of the University’s Department of Biological Sciences, but her career at the University began in 1985 when she joined the Department of Animal and Food Sciences as an assistant professor. She became an associate professor in 1991 and a full professor in 1996, and has held a joint faculty appointment with the Department of Biological Sciences for many years. In 2001, Morgan was named acting dean of the UD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), a role she took over officially the following year. After 11 years leading CANR, she became the interim chair of the Department of Biological Sciences for two years before being named chair in 2016.
Morgan earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Meredith College and her Ph.D. in biology from The Johns Hopkins University. She also did postdoctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley.
1. You have been a department chair, a dean, and now Provost. How has each step throughout your career helped prepare you for this position and your current role here at UD?
I am first and foremost a faculty member, and I still view myself that way. The University of Delaware is unique because it has allowed a number of people on its faculty to move in and out of administration. It is a very good thing because it lets administrators be grounded in what it is like to be a faculty member.
Being a dean was a good perspective for me because it got me out in the state and outside of the University. I had certainly gone outside of the University a lot in my research endeavor and had collaborators in other places, but to be out in the communities looking at the outreach that the University does, whether it is with youth, farmers, families, all kinds of things—that was a new experience for me.
After being a dean, I became a department chair, and I think department chair is a key position at a university like this. The leadership that you put forward as a department chair will determine whether departments and units are successful.
And [as a chair] you’re working with young faculty, with students, with older faculty, so it is really the heartbeat of the University. When you’re sitting in a department chair seat, you feel it. You know when 200 extra students show up on campus and want to take an intro course that your department is responsible for.
So as Provost, it’s a much larger picture. I’ve been here a long time and I know many people, but there are many parts of the University that I did not know in depth because they were not in my discipline or in my field. It has been a privilege and a joy to get to know those areas that I was not so familiar with.
2. What has it been like to transition to Provost?
I would like to think that one of the things I bring to the University is the ability to really build the relationship between the administration and the faculty so that this isn’t viewed as a we/they relationship. It is a “we are in it together” situation. We have shared governance, we are all here for students, and we are all here about creating knowledge and being a university that is a beacon for the region and for the world. We have these shared goals, and trying to see things from each other’s viewpoints is very important.
3. What changes have you seen over your time at UD?
The ability to communicate electronically—whether by email, text, and the many different things we do on social media—is important, and we’re much more in tune with information. But we still have to be very mindful of how people hear what we say, how people read what we write, and how they read our body language. We must pay attention to being empathetic when we talk to people and putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. All of that is still the same.
4. What is your advice to women rising through the ranks of both faculty and staff today? How might we increase the number of women in faculty ranks?
Increasing the number of women on the faculty, I think, will naturally occur. It takes some time because there aren’t many women at the full professor rank, and when your faculty become tenured they tend to stay in those positions. It is pretty hard to change a 1,300-person faculty all at once, but if you look at new hires, 60 percent of them have been women, so there are changes that will happen. It just takes time.
Getting women to full professor status, I think, is a different question, and that’s a mentoring issue. If you look historically, you’ll see that women have tended to have the lower rank positions, particularly if you look at underrepresented minority women. So that is a mentoring question: The more women who make it to higher ranks and the more we commit ourselves to mentoring of all faculty, the better off we are going to be as an institution.
As a faculty member, you should always have high aspirations, but there needs to be some joy in the process. It is a tough job in the beginning. It is hard to get through those early years, but the reward on the other side is immeasurable. You spend your life with young people—you spend your life being paid to think.
My advice is to be very careful about what you choose to put your energy into. A whole lot of the stuff out there ought to be ignored. Don’t focus on things that divert your attention from what really matters.
5. What are some strategies that the Women’s Caucus might use to help us reach our goal of improving a feeling of welcoming at the University?
What I’d like to see happen is a shift in how people treat each other – we should set examples for everyday activities of how people should treat each other with respect. We need to remember that every single person has a story to tell and every single person ought to be listened to.
6. How do you describe your leadership philosophy?
A leader is someone whom other people follow. If no one is following you, you’re not a leader. In my world, I have to be a leader whom other people want to follow. You have to be an inspiring leader, you have to be a Pied Piper leader, you have to be someone that other people choose to follow. That is the most important thing about my job.
7. What do you feel are your greatest challenges and opportunities in your role?
This is the most exciting time I’ve seen at the University of Delaware in 30 years. We are building on the efforts of those who came before us and helped UD evolve into a robust research university that still greatly values teaching. We are all about students here, but we’ve also grown into a very, very competitive research university. So many people before us built the foundation, but the growth now seems exponential.
We have an energetic president, we have a supportive Board of Trustees, we are hiring faculty, we are trying to put up the facilities that we need for both our students and our faculty. It is an explosive growth phase, and while that’s very exciting, it can also be very challenging. Every dime that we have must be spent wisely, and we have to think about every hire we make. We need to think about where we are going to put people, how can we use our spaces and our resources in the very best way in this time of great growth. It’s a huge responsibility but a fun one, and it’s one that I hope we all share.
8. How does your personal background shape your worldview?
I’m a first-generation college graduate. I grew up in eastern North Carolina; it’s a lovely place. I grew up on the Pasquotank River, which is a cypress swamp—the water looks like Coca Cola. My dad used to say that I was born with webbed feet and that I could swim before I would walk. I grew up in a very, very poor area of North Carolina. I was raised by a terrific set of parents. They were raised near Raleigh in a little town called Middlesex, but they grew up as cotton and tobacco farmers—very, very poor families.
My daddy was in World War II; he was younger than my mother. Girls in town were writing to all the G.I.’s, she drew my father’s name, and they began to write. She sent him a photo that says, “Love Dot.” It’s a beautiful professionally done photo. I keep it by my bedside now. The corner is turned, and that is so special because he carried it in his duffel bag and it got bent. Daddy kept this photo on his desk his whole life. In 1948, when he came home, they got married. It was a romance that evolved from writing letters to each other during the war.
9. What made you go to college?
Oh, my parents wanted me to go to college. In 1955, my parents moved off the farm where they had no plumbing in the house—that’s how poor they were. Now I didn’t care, but daddy had seen another world. He’d been other places and they knew they had to get out of that cycle. So he went to work for Wachovia bank, and he worked his way up. He felt that by not taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, he had been held back. That was fine, and he was a happy man who was satisfied with the life he lived, but he really wanted his children to go to college. So I went to Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I really loved it and I was a great student. I had always been a good student because I worked hard. I’m not a brilliant student, I just work hard, and I really like to work. My parents worked every day of my life, so I naturally love to work. I define myself by work, and I worked in college and school. I was the kind of student who does really well, but it wasn’t effortless, so I understand the student who has to do a lot of work to succeed.
I’m 100 percent convinced that one professor named George Hoffmann at Meredith College changed my life. He thought I had potential, and he told me what graduate school was. He helped me work at Research Triangle Park as an undergrad. He showed me the world of research, so today, I understand what it means for a student to have a relationship with a faculty member who mentors them. That can be huge. I still keep in touch with George Hoffmann by the way.
10. You mentioned knowing someone’s playlist can offer a new perspective on the person.
If you want to know about who I am and where I come from, you need to listen to “Carolina In My Mind” by James Taylor. I love that song. I love James Taylor. I have everything he did from when I was a young person. The alarm that I wake up to at 5:45 a.m. every day is “Carolina In My Mind”—it’s home.
The second song was written by Bob Dylan and performed by Joan Baez, “Forever Young,” and it’s about young people. I’m not so young anymore, but young is a state of mind and to me you are forever young when you are always willing to take a risk and do something you don’t know how to do. A little child has to learn to walk; they don’t know if they can do it. They have to learn to swim; they don’t know if they can swim. When you stop being willing to try challenging things, you’re not young anymore. That’s why I became Provost. I’m not stopping yet.