Before Provost Ian Baucom joined the University in 2014 as the Dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, he lived on a different continent, earned an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University, two master’s degrees from Yale and taught at Duke University. As the University’s newest provost, Baucom now serves as the chief academic officer — so, what brought him to Virginia?
The historical aspect was a pull for Baucom, who says the University is at its core “the University of the Declaration of Independence.”
The University is the only US university and one of four worldwide designated as World Heritage Sites. Most are familiar with the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who — when writing his own epigraph — included his founding of the University as one of three of his most notable achievements among his authorship of the Declaration. Students, faculty and community members also grapple with the University’s complex and often dark past, including a history of enslavement and roots in discriminationracism and eugenics.
“It’s the University of the ‘we’ — the idea that we’re a community of people held together by the pursuit of truth,” Baucom said. “And that’s pretty amazing. It’s a great thing.”
The University is also, as Baucom pointed out, far from perfect, and a place that fights to live up to its democratic aspirations — students included. Baucom mentioned watching the student response to the events of Aug. 11, when white supremacists Marched down the Lawn the evening preceding the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” rally. The group was met by a group of counter-protestors—many of whom were students—circled around the Jefferson statue on the north side of the Rotunda, many of whom were injured as they stood their ground.
“It was an incredibly powerful experience,” Baucom said. “That experience of saying, ‘We refuse. We refuse,’ to the racists. That was extremely powerful.”
Baucom was raised in South Africa during apartheid, a violent system of institutionalized racial oppression that persisted from 1943 to the early 1990s. His parents ran adult literacy programs for mine workers there, which Baucom cited as an important part of not only his childhood, but also his eventual interest in education.
“That shaped me,” Baucom said. “If there’s one thing in terms of how it is that I entered into [education] and found what feels like a vocation, that’s it.”
Before Virginia, Baucom received a master’s degree in African studies and a doctorate in English from Yale, and taught at Duke University as an English professor and director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. But he had wanted to be at a public institution, Baucom said, and one that thinks “very seriously” about its democratic purposes.
His first role at the University, the Dean of the College, traditionally involves recruiting faculty and listening to student concerns as well as advancing the curriculum available to students.
The role provided by Baucom with experience in communicating with faculty in addition to his involvement in academic disciplines all across the College, from biology to English to studio art. But Baucom really enjoyed learning from students, and valued insight into the undergraduate experience — during his tenure as the Dean, he and his wife Wendy lived in Pavilion X, alongside their five children.
“Living on the Lawn, I got a sense of the fullness of student life that I really value,” Baucom said. “The administrative work is for faculty, for staff, for students, but it can be all-consuming. Having that kind of grounding and the delight and funkiness, it’s certainly something I want to hold on to.”
A lot of that delight comes from watching students engage in decades-old traditions like Final Exercises, and also more spontaneous student experiences — Baucom remembers a night in 2016 when a snowstorm left Charlottesville blanketed in close to 17 inches of snow while he was living on the Lawn. Standing on his balcony with his wife at midnight, Baucom recalls watching a flash-mob snowball fight like something out of “one of those Flemish Renaissance paintings,” a scene of “pure exuberance.”
These two perspectives — a diverse range of academic disciplines and a feel for student life — guided Baucom through his tenure as dean. Under his guidance, the College updated its curriculum for the first time in 40 years to focus more heavily on intellectual studies and introduce students to a wider variety of classes.
Then it came time for a new chapter. In January, the University announced that former provost Liz Magill would be leaving her role at the University to serve as the next president of the University of Pennsylvania, with Baucom succeeding her. The process of Baucom’s appointment was met with initial opposition from some faculty, as Ryan did not conduct a formal search. This left many faculty and staff members with the impression that their input was excluded.
Both as Dean and throughout his transition into the role of provost, Baucom said he has maintained that it is crucial for him to listen to faculty, stakeholders and students in order to best understand how to improve the University.
“I want to serve you,” Baucom said to the Senate at a meeting in March. “I want to understand how I can help you.”
This service, Baucom said, presents itself in four major areas — research infrastructure, representation and diversity in faculty, investment in graduate education and improvement in undergraduate advising.
During his time as dean, Baucom also worked to improve research at the University and saw a 50 percent increase in externally funded research. In his role as provost, Baucom still sees the opportunity for investment in several areas ranging from “physical infrastructure” to “data analytics and research computing.”
“We are a research institution,” Baucom said. “Our research is strong, but we need to make some significant investments.” During the Board of Visitors’ Academic and Student Life meeting on June 3, Baucom announced the University’s plan to invest $15 million in brain and neurology and environmental resilience and sustainability research, respectively.
Baucom acknowledged the importance of supporting graduate students as they are the “faculty of the future” and play a crucial role in promoting the “research mission and the faculty mission” of the University. The University has approximately 7,800 graduate students who regularly serve as teaching assistants in undergraduate classes and work closely with faculty to advance research projects.
Undergraduate advising has also been the focus of Board of Visitors meetings after students expressed frustrations with the quality of advising at the University, especially for undeclared students. In June, the Board’s Academic and Student Life Committee heard from both Baucom and Robyn Hadley, vice president and student affairs officer, about the importance of supporting undergraduates and providing them with a comprehensive and usable list of resources.
“Advising is that moment in which a student is able to be present at the University, deeply present as an individual person with a need to navigate their academic career,” Baucom said. “They’re thinking about their future employment, career, how they navigate social life — to be seen and supported … advising is a huge part of that.”
Tackling issues like advising and research has been important to Baucom even through the COVID-19 pandemic, when much of the world — and the University — has scaled back in-person operations. Baucom admired the flexibility and strength students, faculty and staff showed even in the midst of the global shutdown. One day, Baucom said, he was walking down the Lawn and heard a jazz ensemble playing — the music classes, he realized, had needed to come outside to practice.
“You’d walk across the Lawn and hear music,” Baucom said. “And it’s beautiful, but it was just a sign of the resilience of the place and our students.”
At the end of the day, Baucom has a deep respect and devotion to students at the University, and helping them realize their purpose and potential as he serves in his new role as Provost.
“This place has a historical purpose,” Baucom said. “It’s not easy. We’re not done, we’re not finished. [Students] are part of something historic, and I hope that people feel that and have a sense of that. We don’t want that to feel like a burden. We really are here for you. We fundamentally exist because you came here.”