UVA’s First Female Provost, Liz Magill, Talks Higher Ed in Podcast
Audio: Inside UVA Episode 3: Liz Magill(18:25)
Speaker 1 I understand you are a fan of kickboxing A, is that true, and B, is it helpful in your role as provost to know?
Speaker 2 Because it is true and it is really helpful for provosting, as my husband likes to say, exercising and kickboxing keeps me sane on those days when I have more to do than I feel like I can do in that day.
Speaker 1 So hello, everyone. I'm Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, and I'd like to welcome all of you to the third 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. And 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 for this episode. I am delighted to welcome my friend and colleague, Provost Liz McGill to the show. Liz, thanks very much for being here.
Speaker 2 Thanks for having me.
Speaker 1 So there are a lot of things I want to cover and a lot of things I want to ask you about. A provost at a university, including the University of Virginia, is an incredibly important job. You're the chief academic officer. You're one of the very senior leaders of the university. But what exactly does a provost do? Maybe you could, I don't know, paint us a day in the life of Liz McGill, provost.
Speaker 2 Great question at the University of Virginia and at every institution I know, the provost is the champion and guardian of the academic missions of the university. So educating students, advancing knowledge and sharing it with the next generation in the world, contributing to the community, contributing to the Commonwealth. I'd say those are key missions, leaving out clinical care for a moment over at the medical center. So if you like higher education and I do, it's the best job in higher education. My job is to think about advancing and championing the the missions of the university. The other way to think about it is I have a lot of direct reports, so I get to work really closely with the deans of the 12 schools. I have a group of vice provost who are working on everything from the promotion and tenure process and faculty affairs to education across those 12 schools to public service to the arts. That's a real privilege to get to work with them. There are some other entities that report up through the provost office, the Bio Complexity Institute. We have some other research institutes that are part of the provost office. And then, of course, I get to work hand-in-hand with you and J.J. Davis and Dr. Kent and other senior leaders at the university to advance the missions and our strategic objectives. So day in the life can be a lot of meetings, a lot of people to keep in touch with and to try to help them in any way that I can advance the job is as they see their job.
Speaker 1 So I know you grew up in North Dakota. So were you as a kid in North Dakota dreaming of a career in higher education someday?
Speaker 2 I don't think I was. I was trying to stay warm. I fell in love with higher education when I was an undergraduate. I was a history major, particularly. I studied a lot about the antebellum period in the United States and particularly the N experience of the antebellum period. And I fell in love with what faculty at higher education institutions do, the missions of higher education, of educating the next generation and advancing knowledge, learning things and sharing them with those students and also the world. And I couldn't have thought of a more noble thing to be able to do in my adult life.
Speaker 1 But you ultimately became a law professor here. I want to ask you a little bit about that. So you've had a long career at UVA. You were a law student in the 90s and then came back to be on the law faculty. You served as associate dean at the law school and you went to Stanford to be the dean of their law school. When you came back to become provost, did anything surprise you? If you're like me coming back to serve in a different role, you see parts of the university that you might not have seen before, and I wonder if you had a similar experience.
Speaker 2 I definitely did I'm not sure I was surprised by the breadth of what we do across particularly the 12 schools that we have here at the university, because I knew it was there. But learning about it in more detail, particularly in the context of searching for some new deans, I learned a lot about engineering and architecture, had the opportunity to learn a lot about MacIntire. Of course, I've learned a lot about the college. I think the thing that surprised me the most, though, I have to say it is so wonderful to be on central grounds and to walk the lawn and to see the memorial for and slave laborers and to go over to Peabody Hall and to be immersed in the faculty, staff and students who are walking across grounds every day. It is a constant source of kind of joy. And so if I'm having a tough moment, I just leave my office and I walk around and it's I loved being at the law school. I think you did, too. But it's to be at the center of the university in that way is just it's surprisingly even more wonderful than I thought it would be.
Speaker 1 I know exactly how you feel. I did not spend much time on central grounds when I was at the law school, and it's a privilege to be able to do so. So you moved here, as I mentioned, from Stanford, where you were the dean of the law school there. What's the biggest difference between that job and this one? Is it just scope or are there other things that are different about it?
Speaker 2 It's certainly scope. The size of the faculty, the size of the student body is dramatically different than what the provost does. I suppose I think the thing I loved about being a dean and is different for provost and I'm finding ways to, I guess, satisfy this itch, which is when you are a dean, you are trying to do everything you can with the people in that school and those who care about it to make it the best single law school that it can possibly be. And you're very directly connected to the faculty and the staff and the students who are delivering on that mission every day. And I think the provost, it's just it's just much more indirect. I view our office job as to support the missions of those schools in any way we can. But you are not in the classroom teaching. You are not at a faculty meeting. You are not at an all hands meeting of the staff. It's it's more indirect. And so that's one of the reasons I just love walking around central grounds because I reconnect to especially in the fall. I mean, the leaves turning it's right out of a storybook. Reconnects you to that very direct delivery of education, research service being a good organization at a at a more discreet level, I will say that I benefited from as a dean. I benefited from a wonderful provost's office. And that person was someone I turn to all the time to get advice about hard questions. And so I came here with the hope that one contribution I hope to make is to be in service to the deans and the schools, among other things, to help them do their what is a tough job and a really important one.
Speaker 1 Right. So that leads to the next question, which is covid that was not in your job description that you would have to help manage through a pandemic. Talk a little bit about the last 18 months and how you and others have had to work differently to deal with issues that none of us expected to deal with. And how has that experience, if at all, shaped how you view being Provo's going forward in what will hopefully at some point be a post pandemic world?
Speaker 2 So I guess it's like saying Wilt Chamberlain is tall to say that it was a challenging experience for everyone. I think to me the most interesting part of covid was that so many decisions, if not all of them, had three legs of a stool that don't normally have to stand as connected to one another as they had to in Kofod. So obviously, public health considerations were paramount. Obviously, how do we continue to pursue the missions of the university? How could we teach? How could we continue to do research? How could we continue to serve? And then, of course, can we logistically do this? Can we operationally do this? Do we have the funds to do this? Of the 100 decisions we might have made in covid in the twenty twenty one year that were really big decisions, the vast majority of them required all three legs of the stool to be working together, to be talking to one another. So that was just challenging. But it was also rewarding because of course we've worked together in new ways, hopefully mostly for the better. The decisions were improved by the need to work together and our commitment to working together and other people are going to have to judge whether we did it well. And but I think we did it pretty well. And I'm an optimist at heart, so I feel like I learned so much. I got to know people and work with people in a way that I would have had no opportunity to do. So thinking about our public health advisers and certainly not in a sustained way that we all have gotten to work with them. So really challenging. Really rewarding. I guess the last thing I'll say is I think it was personally challenging for all of us, our students, our faculty, our staff, living in the room, having little in-person contact with anyone except your closest relatives, it's for me, was a very distorting experience and difficult to remind myself. This isn't normal. You, Liz, you need a little more social contact with people, just the hallway conversation. So I think that was it was difficult to constantly be keeping an even keel when all you're seeing is Zoom and your emails or Twitter or social media. It's just that was and a constant struggle to sort of remind yourself, remind myself anyway, this is a distorting experience.
Speaker 1 I completely agree with you on the rewarding part and being able to work with some incredible people that our past probably would not have crossed as often anyway, including Casey and Mitch. And you just made you appreciate honestly how remarkable our colleagues are and our students and faculty and staff or I mean, a lot of people sacrificed and a lot of people stepped up and it was amazing to see as difficult as it was. So I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about people who have influenced you. You've had the great fortune of having some terrific mentors, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for whom you clerked after law school. So I'm curious, what lessons, if any, did you learn from RBG, as she's called, that you carry with you today? And what was the experience like?
Speaker 2 It was like being a kid in a candy store that also had a lot of workaholics in it. So if you like law, which I do, it was like being in Shangri-La or something. But it was incredibly demanding here. Justice Ginsburg expected a lot of work from us, but no more than she expected from herself. So I learned I would say two things that I do carry with me and I try to comply with all the time. I'm not sure that I always do. But one was she was really devoted to not caricaturing those who disagreed with her. She never failed to appreciate the best version of the argument of the people who disagreed with her, which is just a species of the broader point, which is she was a lawyer, born and bred, argued cases at the Supreme Court, knew what a good advocate was and believed deeply that a good advocate did not mischaracterize or caricature the opponents argument. And I'm just reflecting most of these these these two lessons are really about the process or the craft of what she did. The second is. Try to deliver your absolute best work every time you can, if it needs a tenth revision, make the tenth revision and that's a hard, hard one to keep up with when you have a lot to do. But I try to keep that with me and take some pride if I feel like I've done the best I absolutely can.
Speaker 1 But you have said your parents still remain the greatest influencers on your life. So talk a little bit about them. And growing up, one of six kids in North Dakota and what lessons they imparted that you still abide by today.
Speaker 2 It's hard to describe growing up in North Dakota. It was a fantastic childhood, but no one really believes me. So I I'm the fourth of six kids. We are about 13 years apart from kid number one, ticket number six. My parents had an extraordinary marriage, just a stable, loving parents who loved all of us very deeply. They were very devoted to us. And as you can imagine, in North Dakota, they were very committed to us doing a lot of activities every season. So you should play a sport every season and you should be volunteering and you should you should not be sitting around the house, because I think that would have driven both my parents absolutely mad and they were very different, but very in love. My dad was he grew up on a farm in North Dakota, really in the Dust Bowl. And he treated most of his adult life as the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae. It was a tough childhood. He had a loving mother and siblings, but he viewed his adult life to just be this very happy thing. And at my best, I have that feeling of a lot of gratitude for everything I have and have been given and the people who've been, you know, meaningful to me. And he was a very hard worker, very, very Ginsburg esque in his do the best you can every time a judge as well, a lawyer and then a judge. And he admired a good work ethic. He certainly had one. I think most of us had one. He also he just enjoyed his life. He enjoyed his friends. He enjoyed his volunteer work. So my mother was a kind of person who at her best when she came into the room, everybody brightened. She was always worried that we weren't having enough fun. She wanted us to go to all the dances. She wanted us to get the latest haircut if we wanted. She thought we worked too hard. She said, why aren't you? Why aren't you having more fun? You should meet more. You should meet more boys. You should you should be having more fun. So they were a great pair. So I feel like I got a sense of what life is about from them. And I when I'm at my best, I feel like there's a little bit of both of them in me.
Speaker 1 Well, now you are a parent to two amazing grown young adults, one of whom is a student here, and I wonder, what is that like to be provost at a university where your student is enrolled?
Speaker 2 It's been wonderful, to be honest. You know, she comes sometimes to borrow the car. And I just think I get to see her today because I have to give her a key to the car that's parked in my parking space. She's a sharer. So I know about the classes she's taking and the program she's in. And she's she's found her place and her people. And so I get to see a different perspective on the university. And given that J.J. Davis and I wrote a lot of emails to the entire community last year, she keeps me honest. I share them with JJ when they're there. Vivid reactions. So I've gotten a couple of texts about the timing of things being not maybe the best thing.
Speaker 1 And she offers constructive feedback.
Speaker 2 She offers constructive feedback. And I say we we'd be delighted to have you on a committee to hear your input on that. And we'd like the committee to report back in a year or so. And then JJ and I will consider that suggestion. So it's it's absolutely been wonderful to get to see her and know about her life in college without intruding on it. And also get to see how that different perspective on the university
Speaker 1 well, is that's about all the time we have. I want to thank you again for being here on this podcast and on behalf of everyone at UVA. Thank you for being here. As Provost, we are incredibly fortunate to have you.
Speaker 2 It's a privilege. Thanks for asking me. It was fun.
Speaker 3 Inside UVA is a production of WTU ninety one point one FM and the office of the President at the University of Virginia inside UVA. It's produced by Mary Gardner McGee, Matt Weber and Nathan Moore. We also want to thank Provost Luis Miguel, Karen Koo's Monica Chac and Charles MacGregor McCants. Our music is turning to you from Blue Dot sessions. Listen and subscribe to inside UVA and Apple podcast Spotify or wherever you get your podcast. We'll be back soon with another conversation about the life of the university.
In the third episode of his podcast, “Inside UVA,” University of Virginia President Jim Ryan hosts Liz Magill, the school’s first female provost, who breaks down what it’s like to be UVA’s chief academic officer and how exercising helps her manage the busiest of schedules.
“Kickboxing keeps me sane on those days when I have more to do than I feel like I can do in that day,” she said in the opening of the podcast, which launched in September.
Ryan asked Magill to “paint us a day in the life of Liz Magill,” and she happily obliged.
“Provosting,” as her husband calls it, puts Magill in the unique position of championing the academic missions of the University. “If you like higher education – and I do – it’s the best job in higher education,” she said.
After you tune in to learn more about Magill and her passions and interests, be sure to listen to Episodes 1 and 2 of “Inside UVA,” to learn more about Robyn Hadley, UVA’s new vice president and chief student affairs officer, and UVA Head Football Coach Bronco Mendenhall.