Dr. Jacquelyn S. Fetrow became the University of Richmond's ninth provost and the vice president for academic affairs on July 1, 2014. A biological chemist by training, she came to the University from Wake Forest University, where she was dean of its undergraduate college of arts and sciences and held an endowed chair in computational biophysics.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I grew up in Pennsylvania, earned my bachelors degree from Albright College and my doctorate at Penn State, and did post-docs at Rochester and MIT. My first faculty position was at SUNY-Albany. I took a sabbatical in San Diego at The Scripps Research Institute. They then invited me to be on their faculty, and I accepted that position.
You founded a private company while you were in San Diego.
Yes, a biotech software company. We developed a number of good partners and raised $50 million of venture capital in three rounds of funding. When the market changed, we merged the company off. At that point, I had decided that I really liked the private sector and wasn’t planning on returning to higher education, but someone nominated me for an endowed chair at Wake Forest University. At the time I wasn’t particularly interested in a faculty position, but my thesis adviser said, “Jacque, you should look at all of your opportunities.”
What attracted you to Richmond?
This educational environment is one of the best that there is. Richmond’s foundation is a very strong liberal arts college, complemented by highly ranked, well-regarded professional schools. This combination gives students distinctive opportunities to interact with one another in all kinds of interesting ways.
How do you plan to spend your first six months on campus?
I’ll be listening: to learn about this community, to appreciate its values, and to understand what it sees as its challenges. More specifically, we are undertaking two dean searches, and I’ll be starting listening tours to help determine how best to fill those two positions.
There’s a lot of discussion nationally about the need for and the role of liberal arts education. What’s your take?
I take my cue from the data and from what CEOs say. I’d paraphrase them like this: “To get hired here, you need to understand our business; but to get promoted here, you need a liberal arts degree.” That’s really the crux of it. You need the skills base, but in order to move up and to have a career path — particularly in the 21st century, when some of our graduates’ jobs haven’t even been invented yet — students are going to need to be able to do all those things that they learn while studying the liberal arts: communicate across interdisciplinary teams, see across cultures and boundaries of all sorts, and think creatively and analytically about solutions when there is no obvious path.
Will you be teaching courses?
Of course. Teaching feeds the soul. As an administrator, one should never lose touch with either the faculty or the students, and I’ve found teaching to be an excellent way to help me maintain that touch. If I teach upper-level level courses, they would be through the chemistry department; that’s my academic home. But I’ll probably teach a First-Year Seminar, as I really enjoy working with new and excited first-year students.
Tell me about your research.
I study the function and structure of proteins, the molecules that perform most of the work of living organisms. The work that I and others in my field do is computational. The big picture idea is that if you could completely catalogue and understand the functional sites of all the proteins in the human body, then that would be a catalyst to enable more efficient drug discovery, so we are developing computational methods that will allow us to catalog and classify the functions of proteins.
Do you think your disciplinary background informs your work as provost?
It does. My experience is as a computational scientist, so I’m used to approaching things pretty analytically. I like to see data. Running a biotech software company consisting of groups of engineers, computational biologists, and experimentalists has given me experience leading interdisciplinary teams.
You could’ve stayed in a full-time faculty position, but you’ve moved into administration. Why?
I like being in a position to enable people to do what they really want to do and to catalyze ideas by putting different groups of people together to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Much of a provost’s job is helping to create a supportive environment in which people have the resources and support to be successful.