Steve Allred

June 9, 2014
At the completion of his term, the University provost talks liberal arts, changes at UR during his tenure, and rock 'n' roll

When Steve Allred, provost and vice president for academic affairs, arrived at the University of Richmond in the spring of 2008, he and University President Edward Ayers quickly set out to develop a five-year strategic plan. Under Allred’s leadership, a working group charted an innovative academic course as part of The Richmond Promise, focusing on an integrated, cross-disciplinary curriculum. Together with faculty colleagues he supported the establishment of the First-Year Seminars (FYS) and University Seminars programs, as well as new interdisciplinary majors.

As Allred completes his term this summer and prepares to assume faculty responsibilities in the School of Law, he talks about his tenure as provost, changes in the University academic experience, and how he’s planning to spend his newfound down time.

What was it like to help develop The Richmond Promise and see it come to fruition?

I was the chair of one of the working groups, and we worked on what became Principle I, the creation of an integrated academic enterprise. The challenge was to take advantage of the somewhat unique configuration of schools at the University of Richmond — how could we draw from the strength of all five schools? How do we overcome barriers, both for faculty and students, to teaching, to research, and to collaboration? Then, of course, the big issue became, we said we’re going to create this cross-disciplinary, integrated, different, fun, and exciting academic experience, but that’s just words on a piece of paper. What are we actually going to do about it? We ended up creating the First-Year Seminars; University Seminars; the Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law major; and the Healthcare and Society major, among other initiatives — lots of opportunities for students to take courses across the University and for faculty to work across schools and disciplines.

How did teaching an FYS give you an inside perspective on the program as it was being developed?

After the faculty voted to establish FYS, I thought, well, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. So I put together an FYS called Working: Legal, Economic and Social Aspects of the 9 to 5 World. We read everything from Rivethead to Supreme Court opinions, and basically examined the American workplace in the second half of the 20th Century and how it has changed. And the students write seven papers, culminating in a 10-page research paper. I’ve done it four times now, and I’ve always enjoyed it.

But I have to say this: the faculty make this program work. We have over 140 faculty who have gone through the training to teach FYS. They’re from all five schools. My job was to lead the discussion, to get faculty thinking about how we want to approach this. The faculty voted for it, and have done all the heavy lifting.

As discussions about the future of American higher education continue, what do you think the liberal arts have to offer?

It’s completely understandable that some people look at college and say, what’s the return on my investment? The temptation is to think about college as simply preparing students for their first job. That’s shortsighted. The challenge is in talking to parents and students and saying, look beyond the immediate, the practical. Think about what college can do to open you up to a life of learning. We have an obligation to challenge students, to confront them with ethical dilemmas and say, how do you discern a guiding principle? We have an obligation to make them read things with which they disagree, and then be able to articulate why they disagree. When they get out in the world, they’re going to face challenges, and people are going to say things with which they disagree. They’ve got to be able to say, that’s an interesting idea that my colleague has proposed, but here’s another idea and here’s why I think it’s a better idea, and then be able to explain that convincingly, write about that clearly and make a good argument. So that’s our obligation, to prepare people broadly, deeply, not just for jobs, but for lives that are enriching and fulfilling.

What are you looking forward to about returning to the classroom?

First of all, before I resume full-time teaching, I’m getting my first sabbatical in 28 years. I’ve been a full-time administrator in the provost office at UNC and UR for 13 years. That’s long enough to do that. I’ve been having lots of good conversations with Wendy Perdue, the dean of the Law School, and we’re exploring a number of possibilities for different classes. The one thing that I have not been able to do in the last 13 years is to write articles and books, and I’m looking forward to doing that again.

You’re also a musician. Will you have more time for that?

I have friends who play music, and now and then we’ll gather around a microphone. The most fun thing I’ve done recently is with Barry Lawson, a professor in math and computer science. He’s a fabulous musician. Barry, my daughter Meredith, and I have played at The Cellar [a campus restaurant] a couple of times in the last year, acoustic Americana/bluegrass stuff. I’ve played with a jazz band off and on for years and that’s been fun; sometimes Professor Mike Davison in the music department joins us. And I’ve sat in with Professor Wade Downey in the chemistry department a few times; Wade is just a rock ‘n’ roll animal. So do I want to keep doing that? Sure. Although, kids, here’s a warning: yes, I am wearing hearing aids and yes, I have damaged my hearing with rock ‘n’ roll. But it was so worth it!

Photo: Alyssa Gunville, ’15