Kathleen Roberts Skerrett

New dean of arts and sciences has history of interdisciplinary education as both a teacher and lifelong student

March 10, 2011

Kathleen Roberts Skerrett doesn’t just teach the value of an interdisciplinary experience — it’s played a major part in her own education and professional life. When she assumes the role of dean of the School of Arts and Sciences on July 1, 2011, she’ll bring that approach to learning to students and faculty at the University of Richmond.

As a member of Grinnell College’s faculty since 1998, Skerrett is a professor of religious studies. She added the role of associate dean in 2007. Her service at Grinnell also included an appointment as acting vice president for diversity and achievement; chair of the gender and women’s studies concentration; and membership on the budget, personnel, academic standing, and first-year seminar and advising committees. Her scholarly research has focused on Christian tradition, contemporary religious thought and gender studies, and political theory.

Skerrett earned her bachelor’s degree from Canada’s Mount Allison University and a law degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She returned to graduate school at Harvard to pursue the interdisciplinary studies that motivate her work today, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in theology and the modern West in 1993.

Skerrett discusses her perspective on distinctive learning experiences and how she hopes to foster innovative thinking at Richmond.

You have a diverse academic background — law, theology and gender studies. What drew you to these fields and how do they intersect for you?

I wanted to study theology as a child, so that is a lifelong vocation for me. I pursued theology at Harvard Divinity School, which is where I discovered gender studies. It was a time of burgeoning feminist scholarship and teaching and I was able to study with some great feminist scholars — Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Margaret Miles, Sharon Welch, Bernadette Brooten.

These fields intersect naturally for me because theology, law, and gender studies all concern questions of value and of freedom. I also enjoy the challenges of discovering good principles and apt responses within complex narratives. That’s what scholars of religion do — especially theological scholars — and what lawyers do.

What led you to Richmond?

I have an auspicious memory of a Grinnell faculty member saying to me long before I entered the search, “Kathleen, I think you would really love it there.” But what really drew me in was reading “The Richmond Promise.” My first question to Steve Allred [provost and vice president for academic affairs] was: “Is this what you really want to do? Is this real?”

To further a uniquely interconnected liberal arts university that embraces a diverse community and pursues its mission in service to the city and the larger world — that’s exactly what I want to do. He said, “Yes, that’s what we want to do, and we’re doing it.” And I was sold.

Why do you think that distinctive experience and interdisciplinary study are important, particularly to undergraduates and students in the School of Arts and Sciences?

Liberal arts education is an interesting phenomenon because it demands great patience with traditions and yet this becomes a source of genuine innovation. We engage students in long processes of building up skills and capabilities and knowledge. When our students are exposed to a variety of disciplines within a cohesive environment like the School of Arts and Sciences, they forge unpredictable connections — both intellectual and social — that help them recast complex problems in new ways. This ability is going to be crucial in this century.

What’s your vision for the future of the School of Arts and Sciences?

I hope we can build on initiatives that enable our faculty and students to deepen their intellectual connections with each other across departments and with the other schools. I hope we can work together on enhancing the meaningful contributions that faculty make to leadership and innovation at the University. I want to further integrate our work with the pressing problems of the city; I value that it’s already being done and I hope to be an ally in that. And I’m especially interested in supporting the faculty’s desire to foster a diversity of people and perspectives in ways that are holistic and eventually self-reinforcing.

What do you like to do outside the world of academia?

For rejuvenation, I have always gone for walks, especially by the sea or among tall trees. I suspect this will be more convenient in Virginia than in Iowa. I was dazzled by the height of the trees when I visited Richmond!