The former American studies chair will take a year’s sabbatical before returning to the classroom.
By Ruth Steinhardt
After more than four years as deputy provost for academic affairs at the George Washington University, Terry Murphy will take a yearlong sabbatical before returning to the classroom as a professor of American studies.
As deputy provost, Dr. Murphy’s portfolio included the offices of international strategy, institutional research and academic planning, as well as most academic programs on the Mount Vernon Campus. She also oversaw the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, which was created only shortly before her appointment as deputy provost. She oversaw major initiatives including a broad reconsideration of the residential student experience and the appointment of Elizabeth Chacko as associate provost for special programs and the Mount Vernon academic experience.
“From my first day as provost, Terry has been one of my strongest partners and a valued member of the senior leadership team,” Provost M. Brian Blake said. “She has worked to support our core academic mission and has expertly led the recent academic planning efforts as part of the university’s Back to Campus Initiative. I am grateful for her dedicated service to the university, which improved the academic experience for students, deans and faculty. It has been a true privilege to work with her."
In 2019, Dr. Murphy began working with GW Libraries and Academic Innovation (GWLAI) to create an instructional continuity plan to enable faculty to teach from a distance if necessary. The timing would prove to be fortuitous.
“We wanted our faculty to be able to switch over to instruction online in the event of something happening—at the time we were thinking of a snowstorm,” Dr. Murphy said. “That’s not something we could’ve done 10 years ago, because we literally didn’t have the technological capabilities, but it was clear we did now.”
She, the GWLAI team and various associate deans began the project, developing training plans and creating teaching tools that faculty could opt into as part of a gradual, collective upgrade in technical skill.
But a few months later, it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would be more disruptive than any snowstorm. Gradual adjustment was no longer an option.
“We had to tell the faculty that this was no longer a drill—by the end of spring break, they had to be teaching online,” Dr. Murphy said. “What had been offered as kind of an amenity became a requirement. Fortunately, those videos and workshops had been finished just a few months before the coronavirus struck.”
Dr. Murphy points to GW’s increased retention rates during her tenure as a point of pride and a collaborative success.
“That wasn’t just an academic affairs issue, it also has to do with residential life and financial aid and many other offices, but to the extent that I participated in it, I’m very proud,” she said. “A lot of what helps students to succeed is beyond the classroom, and I was proud to develop ties with my colleagues in student life around our shared mission for student success.”
Dr. Murphy joined the GW faculty in 1992 and eventually served as chair of the Department of American Studies. She discovered an aptitude for administration in 2010 while chairing the committee to revamp CCAS’s general education requirements.
“On the one hand, it was an intellectual project, where you consider the nature of higher education—what do we want from education? What range of intellectual skills do we want students to have?” she said. “On the other hand, it was very practical, because we had to pull together a lot of constituencies with very different practical needs and issues. Taking intellectual interests and working them out with real people and real institutions—it was that problem-solving that got me hooked.”
She became senior associate dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in 2014, where she helped lead GW’s integration with the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, a challenge she looks back on as one of her most rewarding.
“That was a project that pulled everyone together, from the Office of General Counsel to facilities to academics, which was one of the things I’ve liked most about my jobs both in the dean’s office and the provost’s office, working with so many stakeholders from across the university,” she said.
Dr. Murphy is a noted scholar on the relationship between gender and culture in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But when she returns to the classroom in 2021, she wants to broaden her classroom horizons to include the problems she’s wrestled with as a university administrator. Ideally, she said, she’d like to teach a class that asks the very basic question: What is the meaning of college?
“I know students don’t necessarily think about it, and even faculty tend to think about it mostly through the lens of their own disciplines,” she said. “We need to recognize the value of the intellectual skills that students are learning, but also the kind of transformative experiences that come out of being in a residential academic environment. That’s what I would like to focus on in my research and my teaching when I come back. I think it’s going to allow me to continue to work with the people I’ve worked with for the past 10 years in administration and across disciplines. I don’t want to be siloed.”