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INTERview: Robyn Warhol-Down

A conversation with the new president of the Faculty Senate

By Amanda Waite Article published October 3, 2007

Robyn Warhol
Robyn Warhol-Down, professor of English and a member of the faculty since 1983, began her new post as president of the Faculty Senate this year. (Photo: Sally McCay)

With three book projects in the works, English Professor Robyn Warhol-Down’s scholarly life is as rich and engaging as ever. The ambitious McGraw-Hill Anthology of Women’s Writing Worldwide in English, a 2,000-page collection that was a seven-year collaboration among Warhol and fellow English faculty Mary Lou Kete and Lisa Schnell, as well as three colleagues from other institutions, is due out in December.

The narrative and feminist theorist is also working on the third edition of her 1991 book Feminisms, with coauthor, Iowa State University Professor Diane Price Herndl, as well as a new book, Better Left Unsaid: What Doesn’t Happen in Nineteenth Century British Novels, which, Warhol-Down says, looks “at the ways (authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Henry James) have of talking about what they won’t talk about in their novels.”

Prolific as her scholarship is, Warhol-Down has not shied away from accepting the variety of campus leadership roles — from chair of the English Department to now president of the Faculty Senate — that have come her way. In a recent conversation with the view, she spoke about what she brings to the Senate as its president and what she sees as the major issues facing the organization this year.

THE VIEW: You clearly have no shortage of scholarly work at the moment. What led you to the Faculty Senate on top of all this?

ROBYN WARHOL-DOWN: It’s a wonderful opportunity! I was very excited when I was approached with the idea of taking this job. It’s not something I had thought about as a possibility for me. I very much like the idea of being in the administrative conversation without being an administrator. I really appreciate the freedom to speak with a faculty voice in the conversations that are happening at the strategic planning level, the allocation of resources level, all the things that happen among the highest administrators. And I have to say, a great thing about this university is that the Faculty Senate does have a strong voice in the various decision making processes. I’m really pleased to be able to bring my experience to those discussions. I’ve been on the faculty since 1983, and I know the history of UVM much better than the president or the provost, who have only been here for a fraction of that time. There’s been so much turnover in the administration and on the faculty in the last ten years that someone who’s been around a long time and has that institutional knowledge has something to offer. Also, I bring to it my work over all those years with the Faculty Women’s Caucus and our activism toward recruiting and retaining women and faculty of color. I’m really proud to be able to bring that agenda to the Senate.

You’ve held other leadership positions on campus. You were chair of the English Department for five years and director of Women’s Studies for five years, and you chaired the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and have been on the steering committee of the Faculty Women’s Caucus for about 15 years. How does serving as president of the Faculty Senate compare to these other leadership roles?

One of the things I like about the leadership positions I’ve had, as opposed to, say, if I were to become a dean or go into the provost’s office, is that they’re advocacy positions. When you’re the director of women’s studies or the chair of the English Department, you are the voice for a set of academic values that you feel very strongly about promoting. I’m also the director of the Humanities Center, and that’s another position where I’m there to advocate for the faculty and the students who are doing the work that I feel the most strongly about. As president of the Faculty Senate, I’m still in an advocacy position; now I’m advocating for the whole faculty. So, it’s giving me the opportunity to learn, for example, what, exactly, medical faculty do, and how that’s different from and similar to what arts and sciences faculty do, to understand the interconnections and interdisciplinary academic efforts across different colleges. In other words, I’m coming to a much larger perspective of, “OK, what is the faculty as a whole body that I need to speak for and advocate for?”

What are some of the issues facing the Senate in the coming year?

The Faculty Senate is pressing the administration for more information, for more data on the institution’s investment in research, which is a very high priority for all of us, including the administration. We want to get a clearer picture of what exactly UVM invests in faculty research.

We’re bringing to campus a program in writing in the disciplines, which may or may not result in a campus-wide writing requirement of some kind, but there absolutely will be a campus-wide writing program that will involve faculty in every department all across the campus in teaching students the conventions and expectations of writing in their particular discipline. So, it’s a very different model from the English 001 kind of writing program. English 001 will stay in place as it is, but then as students go into their majors, we’re going to be training faculty in psychology and chemistry and natural resources to articulate what they already know about how they write, things that they may take for granted…. In English, it’s obvious to us because that’s what we do, but there’s no reason why faculty in all other disciplines can’t do it. Other schools, like Cornell, have been leaders in this model of teaching writing, so we’re following their example. We’ll have a director of writing in the disciplines next fall, and that program’s going to be getting started already this year with some training for faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences. So that’s a big project that we’re doing…

We’re going to be participating with the new vice president for enrollment management and the registrar in trying to clean up the schedule. It turns out that there are more than 600 starting times for classes at UVM right now. One teacher wants to start at 8:55, another wants to start at 9, another wants to start at 9:05, and another wants to start at 9:10. If you do that, of course, what it means is that students can’t schedule all the courses they need because when one course is on, there’s still ten minutes left in another course. Officially, this isn’t allowed, but it’s what’s going on, so we’re working with the new vice president Chris Lucier and Keith Williams (UVM registrar) to rationalize a time schedule that will give us maximum capacity on campus to use the spaces, but also will make it so that students don’t have to stay on an extra semester because they couldn’t get courses they needed because of the way things are scheduled…

What are the struggles of leading the Faculty Senate?

Just time. Time. There’s so much happening on this campus all the time. And I see the administrators struggling with this, too. We’re all racing from meeting to meeting. Time and prioritizing where our efforts will be best invested.

You know, we don’t have deep political divisions among the faculty. We’ve got a faculty that collaborates really well and that’s working toward a common goal of academic excellence and diversity. You might imagine challenges that would be political challenges, but I’m certainly not seeing that so far in the job.