An Initial Conversation with the College’s New Dean Ian Baucom


This summer will mark a major transition in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, as Ian Baucom succeeds Meredith Jung-En Woo as the Buckner W. Clay Dean. Baucom’s appointment was announced April 30, and his term will begin in July after a 17-year academic career at Duke University, where he served as a professor – and former department chair – of English and as the Director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.
A Wake Forest undergraduate alumnus, Baucom holds graduate degrees in African Studies and English from Yale University. The next two months feature a whirlwind travel schedule for Baucom, but he spoke with the College Foundation recently about his decision to come to U.Va., about the impact growing up in South Africa had on his research interests and to share some details of his life and interests outside academia.
You chaired the English department at Duke for three years before assuming the post of Director of Franklin Humanities Institute. What about U.Va. attracted you to pursue the Dean’s post for U.Va.’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences?
Baucom: We’re in the midst of an enormously important moment in the history of higher education, particularly in the life of America’s great public universities. From about the Second World War onward, a broad and powerful consensus emerged within American society on the value of a liberal arts education in equipping students from every social background for lives of purposeful vocation and informed, engaged citizenship.
It’s my sense that that consensus has been shaken, even as universities are bursting with new and incredibly exciting research and teaching fields: in neurosciences and the environmental sciences, in global humanities and social science, in data, digital culture and computation to name but a few. Over the next decade, a small handful of universities are going to lead the way in establishing a new consensus on the civic value of the liberal arts while pioneering these new knowledge fields, connecting them to the enduring domains of scholarship on which universities have been built, and educating students for lives of inspired vocation and worldly citizenship.
Among those universities, U.Va stands premiere: for the excellence of its faculty, the quality of its students, the passion for learning embodied by Jefferson’s ideal of the academical village, its historic place within the life of the republic, the energy and dynamism that the College’s leaders, President Sullivan, Provost Simon and others are bringing to the plans for its future.
What happens here simply has a meaning and a significance that no other university can match. For 200 years, what the College has done has mattered to anyone concerned with the question of the place of a university in the great modern projects of knowledge and democracy. Over the next decade, what U.Va. does will matter with an incomparable intensity. The chance to share in that work is a once in a generation opportunity. I can’t imagine not wanting to be a part of it.
In your visits with faculty and students here during the interview process, what impressed you about the College?
Baucom: Many things, but I’ll highlight one: the power of the Lawn – both the original Lawn and the South Lawn – to capture the brightest vision of what a university can be. I’d visited Grounds before (my wife Wendy’s family is from Richmond and we’ve driven up to walk around and soak in the beauty and historic resonance) but I let myself slow down a bit more on these visits and had my first chance to be inside one of the Pavilions.
One vignette from that experience: as Wendy and I were about to knock on the door of Pavilion VI where [Darden assistant professor] Lili Powell and [Senior VP for University Advancement] Bob Sweeney spent a delightful hour showing us around, I heard some French hip-hop coming from one of the student rooms. You don’t hear that every day, but when we came back outside from our time with Bob and Lili, it struck me as perfectly pitched for this world-spanning and history-gathering place: the sound of a black American musical form, filtered through Europe, coming home to the Grounds so beautifully shaped by Jefferson’s French-style gardens and the architecture of an 18th-century American democratic ideal. And then, mirroring that, the beauty and elegance of South Lawn, which testifies so powerfully to the commitment that the College and its alumni have to stewarding that history for the twenty-first century and building on it.
I’ve had the chance to meet or talk with David Gibson and John Nau, two of the Trustees of the College Foundation whose incredible generosity has been so instrumental in making South Lawn possible. Speaking with them, hearing their profound devotion to the College and its future, catching a glimpse of the ways in which students are living the University’s history even as they are recreating it, is incredibly inspiring. I can’t wait to have the chance to walk the Lawn every day and to take my place in the line of all those whose lives have been transformed by being here.
What goals do you have for the College and the Dean’s Office for your first year?
Baucom: There are some clear and crucial things to be highlighting: faculty salaries, the ongoing curricular review, the opportunity to be hiring up to 200 new faculty members over the coming years, enhancing departmental strengths even while we’re expanding interdisciplinary research within the College and between the College and other Schools at the university, foregrounding the importance of the financial accessibility of a UVA education, further advancing the increasing diversity of the student body, faculty, staff and curriculum.
I want to be attending to all of those key things. In doing so, though, its just as vital to be sure that I’m listening very carefully and very attentively to faculty, students, alumni, and members of the College Foundation to ensure that were all working very closely together as fellow citizens of the university to forge a common vision for the future.
Your academic work has focused on 20th-century British literature and culture, postcolonial and cultural studies and African and Black Atlantic literatures.  Tell us what fascinates you about those diverse research topics. Do you have any ongoing research or writing projects that you hope to continue while transitioning to this post?
Baucom: I grew up in South Africa, during the Apartheid years, which meant that from very early on in my life, I had a sense of the importance of civic life and of the unfinished business of democracy. It also meant that I had an early appreciation of the power and dynamism of African, Caribbean, Indian, African-American and black European art and culture in the making of the modern world.
Most of my scholarship has come from engaging the richness, diversity and public importance of those literary, visual, and musical traditions. One of the projects I’ve been working on for the past year or so is a collective venture with a group of colleagues at Harvard, Duke, Barnard, CUNY and NYU to launch a digital research initiative on the history of the Black Atlantic world, running from the era of the slave-trade into the contemporary moment. I’m very excited about it and know it will become incomparably stronger by what I will learn from the many colleagues at U.Va. who have pioneered digital scholarship in the humanities and multiple other fields.
How do you plan to spend the summer?
Baucom: I’ll be on the road quite a bit over the first part of the summer. The first few weeks of June, I’ll be in Hong Kong for a meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes and then visiting a number of universities in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. While I’m on that trip, I’m hoping to visit the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, with whom Dean Woo has built a fantastic set of partnerships, and also to meet with U.Va.’s very active Hong Kong alumni association. After that, I’ll be in Paris and Bologna for a short fellowship and a brief teaching stint.
The key moment though comes in mid-July when Wendy and I move to Charlottesville with our family.  That’s when the real fun begins.
Tell us something about yourself that people would be surprised to hear.
Baucom: I’ll answer this as a multiple-choice quiz and look forward to spending so much time with students, alumni and friends of the College over the coming years that everyone will know the right answers (and can start proposing some new additions to the list):
A)  I spent a year living in the Kalahari Desert
B)   I took off a year in graduate school and learned basic plumbing
C)  I’ve written a children’s novel
D)  I graduated from a high school military academy
E)   All of the above
Are you a college sports fan? His name escapes us, but we are told that Duke’s men’s basketball coach has had a fair amount of success. Where do you stand on the debate over whether it’s cool to rush the court when your team beats Duke. Yay or nay?
Baucom: I’m a huge college sports fan, which means I know enough to leave that question to Tony Bennett. When you own the title, you own the court, and as he proved last year with a double regular season and tournament championship, he and the Cavaliers pretty much own the entire conference right now. I’m looking forward to seeing that newest banner go up, and to all the others that are going to be flying in John Paul Jones Arena before he and the Cavs are done.