President Ryan Hosts UVA’s New Provost on ‘Inside UVA’ Podcast
Audio: ‘Inside UVA’ with UVA’s New Executive Vice President and Provost, Ian Baucom(17:45)
Ian Baucom has high aspirations for the University, including “that our faculty represent a diversity of who we are as a people.”
President Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia: When you were growing up in South Africa, you were something of a child television star appearing on a show akin to the “Mickey Mouse Club” in the United States. True or false?
Ian Baucom, executive vice president and provost: True.
Ryan: Ha. OK, so please explain.
Baucom: The show was called “Oh, to Be Me.” And it was a bit of a boondoggle. Yes, I sang. And I acted. And for some reason, I was swept into a South African television studio when I was about 10, and was asked to return and be a regular on the show, on the condition that I signed up for dancing classes with a couple named Dez and Dawn. The whole thing was just a scam, because you had to take their dancing lessons to be in the show.
Ryan: How long were you on the show?
Baucom: Oh, that show? Not long. I think my parents saw me dancing. (Laughs) They decided that the lessons aren’t paying off
Ryan: Hi, everyone. I’m Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, and I’d like to welcome all of you to another episode of “Inside UVA.”
This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people at the University, and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works, and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make UVA the institution it is.
Today’s guest is Ian Baucom, former Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences here at UVA, having previously spent 17 years at a school in North Carolina by the name of Duke. He was an English professor there and director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. He was recently inducted as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is the author or editor of five books. Raised in South Africa, Ian is a scholar, a teacher, a leader, a husband and a father. And we at UVA are privileged to have him as our new executive vice president and provost.
Ian, thank you for being here.
Baucom: It’s great to be here. I think. We’ll have to see what happens.
Ryan: So tell me a little bit about your childhood in South Africa. Why were you there? And what was it like?
Baucom: Yeah, my parents were missionaries. And my dad was a linguist. And so they had gone to South Africa to do adult education courses for mine workers. So writing and literacy programs for Black miners, first in Togo, and then in South Africa and Namibia. So that’s what brought us there. And I was there from infancy until I was a young teenager.
Ryan: And what was life like there? I’m sure it’s had some lasting impacts on your life.
Baucom: Yeah. I mean, I think every childhood is the defining experience of your life. So in some ways, you know, it was just a childhood; I did childish things, I went to school, you know, I was in clubs, I sang and danced.
In some ways, it wasn’t a usual childhood, at least not a usual U.S. childhood. In some of my earliest memories, one of the schools that I went to was located in a little mining town in the Kalahari Desert. And our school was literally at the edge of the desert. And for PE class, we had to run around the sand dunes.
And then it wasn’t a normal childhood at all. Because as I got older, you know, at 9, 10 or 11, I really began to understand for myself that I’m surrounded by a profound evil of state racism that structured every part of our lives. And I didn’t have some natural insight as an 8-year-old or a 9-year-old. A lot of that came later. A lot of that came from like, looking back on childhood and coming into understanding of what it means to grow up in a culture that is structured on violence. And that can change.
It shaped me more than more than anything beyond, you know, my wife and kids, and my dad and the people have loved me.
Ryan: So if I remember correctly, you also spent some time at military boarding school. I’m curious how you went from being the child of missionaries in South Africa to a student at a military boarding school in the U.S.
Baucom: Yes, in Camden, South Carolina. So how did I get to Camden, South Carolina? So when I was 13, my brother was 15. My parents sent us both home to the States because my brother, if he had turned 16 in South Africa, would have been registered for the South African army. And because we had lived there long enough, we were permanent residents, so he then would have been conscripted and drafted into the South African army when you finished high school. They wanted us out of South Africa before that happened.
So in order to flee conscription, my brother asked to be sent to a military academy in the U.S. And importantly, it wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the military. It was the South African military, and my brother actually wanted to be a soldier. And he wanted to go to West Point.
No one had told us what military academies in South Carolina were like. We had a National Geographic magazine; we’d get them like twice a year and would pore over them and read them like 20 or 30 times over. And at the back of the National Geographic magazine, there was like this quarter-page advertisement for Camden Military Academy in South Carolina. My dad’s from North Carolina, and we had family nearby, so we signed up sight unseen.
So I ended up as a 13-year-old as a member of the Corps of Cadets of Camden Military Academy, where I spent my first real four years of American life.
Ryan: What do you remember most from that experience?
Baucom: My first night.
Ryan: Like, “What have I done”?
Baucom: (Laughs) There was a little bit of that. My first night there, the boys in the dorm where we were living had what the officers called a “hall party,” where we all lined up in the hallway at attention, while the older boys berated the younger boys because the dorm had failed inspection that morning. And I’ll simply say, it was a stern berating. So I remember that.
But you know, I mean, I learned a lot and I made friends there. You know, again, it was a mixed place, there was a lot to learn and it was an important part of my life.
Ryan: So when did you decide to go into academia?
Baucom: Probably toward the end of my junior year in college. I went to college thinking I was going to study politics, which is what I ended up majoring in. And I thought I wanted a career maybe in the Foreign Service. So I was sort of readying myself for that. I did a study-abroad program as a junior in college in London, and took a series of poetry courses. I’d always liked literature, but hadn’t been that serious about it. But I took a bunch of poetry courses and fell in love with poetry, and started to think this might be an interesting way to lead a life. So I date it roughly from then.
Ryan: Right. And talk a little bit about your area of academic interest. So when you were an English professor; what were you writing and teaching about?
Baucom: I work in a field called postcolonial studies. What that really means is looking at the literature and history and culture that came out of the colonial experiences within the British Empire. So I do research on African literature, somewhat unsurprisingly, Caribbean literature, Indian literature, and some contemporary Irish literature.
That’s the broad field, and I became particularly interested in African literature and thinking about the ways in which racialized identities have been produced and writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers, have navigated the experience of race – first in the British Empire, but then kind of more broadly. That’s been my area of focus.
Ryan: So your experience growing up in South Africa has continued to influence you in ways large and small, including your academic interests?
Baucom: Yes, very much very much.
Ryan: So in addition to your scholarly books, am I right that you are also the author of a children’s fantasy novel called “Through the Skylight”?
Baucom: (Laughs) Yes, that is true.
Ryan: And how did that come about?
Baucom: You know, at the end of this interview, I think the one thing that I’m not going to be is your provost, because you’ll be like, “Who is this guy?”
Ryan: Come on, you’re multi-talented.
Baucom: So I was teaching in a study-abroad program when I was working in North Carolina, and they have a program in Venice, and I was teaching in Venice. By that point, Wendy, my wife, and I were married, and we had three kids. And we had brought a bunch of English language books to read to the kids at night, and went through them more quickly than we thought we would. So we ran out of books to read them and discovered that we couldn’t find an English language bookstore.
So I decided that I would start writing a book for our kids and read it to them at night. And I used the kids as the characters for the novel. We were homeschooling them. Well, my wife was really doing a lot of it. I taught them some bad Latin, but she would take them to museums and churches and all sorts of cultural sites. So I invented this story where there were three kids. So the day before they’d go to a museum or a church to look at some painting, I would have their characters go there and see the same thing. So that was the basis for it. I thought I was gonna get rich. That didn’t happen.
Ryan: So there’s no movie in the offing.
Baucom: I did sign a contract that had theme park rights.
Ryan: Oh, that’s excellent. Nothing’s come of that?
Ryan: What would the ride have looked like?
Baucom: Well, there are flying lions. So there could have been a roller coaster, like a flying lion kind of thing. Yep.
Ryan: There’s still a possibility. You know, all sorts of things start to happen once you’re named provost.
Baucom: It’s true. Yeah. So you, Jim, for instance, could determine that the Emmett-Ivy Corridor in fact needs a little bit of fun in a children’s amusement park.
Ryan: Now that’s high on our list, actually.
So you and your family, and you have a large family, lived in one of the pavilions on the Lawn for a number of years. And I wonder what that experience was like for you? Did you and your family like living there?
Baucom: I loved it. I loved just about every minute of it. Well, maybe not absolutely every minute.
Ryan: You had a bad neighbor there for about a year. I was right next door.
Baucom: There was this guy, yeah, who lives next door and he would come over at night asking for food (laughs).
No, it was great. But it’s one of those things. It’s a very banal version of what I said about growing up. In some ways, it was extraordinary, right? I was living in this historic home on the grounds of the University of Virginia on the Lawn, and I’d get up in the morning and walk across the Lawn and see the cornerstone and get a cup of coffee at the Colonnade Club on the way to work, you know, next to the names of three American presidents. And it’s also just, we were raising our kids there, and we were just doing very normal things. So it was a mix; there were a lot of splinters in the wood of the house. And we couldn’t have the wood sanded.
Ryan: Oh, right.
Baucom: Because the wood was historic, and it was really thin. If we had it sanded, the original wood would have been gone. So we just had to say like, “Kids, sorry, you’re just gonna get splinters.”
Ryan: That’s the price of leadership right there.
Baucom: I mean, there are a lot more stories to tell. But it’s a balance of those things. Yeah.
Ryan: So I’m curious; at what point did you decide to cross over to the dark side of academic administration? Did it happen gradually? Or was there a moment in time where you thought, “Yeah, this is what I want to do”?
Baucom: Yes, some are born administrators, some achieve administrator-ness, and some have it thrust upon them.
No, step by step, probably like you. I was, first, the director of undergraduate studies in the English department at Duke. I really, really care about undergrad education, and so I enjoyed doing that. And then I was asked to be department chair. And it was just one of those gradual things where I was asked to direct a research institute. And I suppose I’d been doing administrative work for eight or nine years, and could have stopped them and gone back to being full-time faculty, but I realized that I enjoyed working collectively with people on common projects.
Ryan: Yeah, that is the biggest difference, isn’t it? I mean, you are much more working with teams than you do as an academic.
Baucom: I think that’s right. Neither one of us is a scientist. But one reason why I think a lot of very successful administrators are scientists is their relationship to the university and to knowledge is done through the lab, through collaborative research.
I think administrative work is a lot like that. You’re trying to think about how you assemble a team to collectively build a project. You know that you’ll see some results immediately, but you’re really kind of building for the long term. And it’s fascinating. Administrative work is intellectual work at its best – not every moment of every day. But you get to see that, and it’s compelling.
Ryan: Yeah, the biggest difference – well, one of the biggest differences – is you realize that implementation is actually complicated and can be intellectually challenging. I mean, if you’re a law professor, like I was, you thought that your job was to identify the problem, and then just propose a solution that would miraculously happen. And it’s that in-between space that actually requires a great deal of work, and is far more interesting and far more challenging than I would have imagined when I first started.
Baucom: Yeah, yeah, completely agree.
Ryan: That reminds me that you often talk of the “we” in speeches. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by it, and why it is such a touchstone for you?
Baucom: So we are Thomas Jefferson’s university, founded by Jefferson. And that’s something we’ve known about ourselves for a long time. And it’s something that continues to be true. And it’s true in its inspiration, and it’s true in its difficulty. If we’re Jefferson’s, then that means we’re also Sally Hemings.’ And it means that we are something else that you see when you look at his tombstone. He names three things: author of the Declaration of Independence, author of the Statute for Religious Toleration, and founder of University of Virginia.
And as I’ve tried to think through that very complex, inspiring and broken relationship to our past, those two parts of what’s on that final epitaph really stuck with me. Declaration and university. And I increasingly have come to think of our work as being the work of the “University of the Declaration.” And if we’re the “University of the Declaration,” then we are the University of the “We,” and of the “We the People” held together by the pursuit of truth. That’s our call to be evermore that “We.” To expand that “We” and to believe that a democratic “We” gets expanded by the pursuit of truth.
Ryan: So the circle expands. But the central purpose and the central goal remains the same.
Baucom: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And so, even as we’re changing, we’re continuous with our history, and our history is what’s causing us to sort of continuously change because that is this always unfinished promise,
Ryan: Right. The imperfect pursuit of high ideals.
Baucom: Yeah. Yeah.
Ryan: So last question. I’m curious what you hope to accomplish as provost?
Baucom: There are three, maybe four particular things. But if there’s one unifying thing, it actually does go back to that idea of the “We.” And I want to work with you, I want to work with our faculty, I want to work with our staff, I want to work with our other deans to ask again: What does it mean to be a public university? And what does it mean to be a public university now? And what does it mean to actually serve a public?
So if there was a single thing I’d really like to accomplish. It’s to help expand those boundaries of the “We.” There are particular things behind that. I mean, it means really ensuring that as we recruit evermore students from evermore walks of life, with ever wider backgrounds of history, that when we welcome them in, as we think about advising as we think about academic support, as we think about student life, that they feel like they’re part of that “We.” It means that we really need to focus on who our faculty are, right, that our faculty represent the diversity of who we are as a people. It means that our research mission needs to be superb.
Those are particular things; they’re projects to work on. But they are versions for me of how you get to the “We.” And, you know, if someone were to ask you, you know, “What do you try to do as president?,” I think you’d begin and end with “great and good.” And then there are an endless number of things within that.
Ryan: Yeah. Well, Ian, thank you very much. It’s been lovely to speak with you and I appreciate your being on the podcast.
Baucom: Yeah, take care.
Mary Garner McGehee, producer: “Inside UVA” is a production of WTJU 91.1. FM and the Office of the President at the University of Virginia. “Inside UVA” is produced by Mary Garner McGehee, Brooke Whitehurst, Matt Weber and Nathan Moore. We also want to thank Dr. Ian Baucom, Monica Shack, Athena Hanny and McGregor McCance. Our music is “Turning to You” from Blue Dot Sessions. Listen and subscribe to “Inside UVA” on Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
We’ll be back soon with another conversation about the life of the University.
Long before he arrived at the University of Virginia in 2014 to become the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and later, executive vice president and provost, Ian Baucom was a child actor in South Africa.
“The show was called, ‘Oh To Be Me,’ and it was a bit of a boondoggle,” Baucom told UVA President Jim Ryan in the latest episode of Ryan’s podcast, “Inside UVA.”
“I sang and I acted,” he said. “And for some reason I was swept into a South African television studio when I was about 10 and was asked to return and be a regular on the show – on the condition that I signed up for dancing classes with a couple named Dez and Don. The whole thing was just a scam because you had to take their dancing lessons to be in the show.”
Ryan and Baucom eventually shifted the conversation of Baucom’s new role as provost, a role he assumed in March.
Ryan asked Baucom, the son of missionaries, what he hopes to accomplish as UVA’s chief academic officer.
“I want to work with you,” he said. “I want to work with our faculty. I want to work with our staff. I want to work with our other deans to ask again, what does it mean to be a public university and what does it mean to be a public university now, and what does it mean to actually serve a public?”
As the University continues to recruit an ever more diverse student body, he also said it’s important “that our faculty represent a diversity of who we are as a people. It means that our research mission needs to be superb.”
Baucom said there are projects to work on and an endless number of things to accomplish his goals. “If someone were to ask you, you know, what you try to do as president, I think you begin and end with great and good,” he concluded.