Marlene Tromp has been president of Boise State University since 1 July. Previously, she was campus provost and executive vice-chancellor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A first-generation college graduate, she has written widely on gender, social justice and cultural issues in 19th-century life and literature.
Where were you born?
While I was born in Ohio, I grew up and attended school in Green River, Wyoming, which I call my home town.
How has this shaped who you are?
Growing up in Wyoming had a significant impact on me. There, I was encouraged to enjoy a wealth of opportunities in athletics, student government, academics and the performing arts. This nurtured in me a great love for the richness and bounty of education and showed me how participation in one area could enrich the others. The West also taught me a real love and reverence for the natural environment and the way it can become a part of an education.
What kind of undergraduate were you?
Curious and earnest. I wanted to participate in as many things as possible – both academic and extracurricular. I would have majored in 10 things if that had been possible. When I was a senior, someone I was tutoring said to me, “Hey, you’re pretty good at this. What do you want to do for a living?” I said, “I don’t know, but I wish I could stay in college for ever.” I figured out a way to do just that!
How much did it mean to you to graduate?
Graduation felt transformative to me, like I was on the threshold of a whole new world. My father had been a manual labourer his whole life and hoped for something better for his daughters. He beamed with pride to see us walk across that stage – something he had always dreamed of doing himself. He wanted much more for us, and that is precisely what I saw in that moment: the wide world of places, practices, and intellectual, spiritual and cultural traditions opening before me. It felt dazzling.
Can you believe how far you have come from a small mining town to university president?
I didn’t set out to become a university president, just to give of my talents, be creative, work hard, and be of service. Each step on my path has felt like a new wonder, in which I get to do the work that matters most to me.
How did you get into your research area?
I fell in love with Victorian literature as a pre-med undergraduate, reading Robert Browning’s poetry. That carried me into a graduate programme where I studied Victorian literature and culture, as well as women’s studies. The latter programme gave a new texture to my study of literature; it helped me see how groups of people and individuals made social change and how social conditions affected people’s participation in and contributions to the world around them.
What has been the most exciting part of your research into the 19th century?
I have loved every book I have written and found great joy in the process. When I wrote on séances, people asked me, “How will you ever find anything more interesting than this for a subject?” and I next wrote on freak shows. Now, I’m writing on sexually scandalous murder cases from the 19th century. Perhaps the most magical moment in my research was when I discovered something in an archive that many researchers thought would never be found. It felt magical to lay my eyes upon it, like the past was opening itself up before me.
What can we learn from the 19th century?
The 19th century has the benefit of being close enough that we recognise and understand it well, but far enough away that our defences come down when we ask the big questions about justice, culture and politics in the period. The lessons we learn from the Victorians’ triumphs and struggles are highly relevant today. They considered borders and immigration; gender roles; sexuality; class; education and mobility; beauty and art; and approaches to a rapidly changing scientific and social world.
What has changed most in global higher education in the last five to 10 years?
The biggest change has been the diminishing confidence that people have in the value of higher education. There was a time, not so long ago, in which the public broadly understood the value of learning – even if it was not transactional or related to one’s future career – to make someone prepared to contribute to the world at large. All kinds of institutions and degrees have either come under fire or been sullied. We must help our students become more articulate about the value of what they’re learning, and institutions of higher education must themselves ensure that the public understands their transformative potential for individuals and for the world.
What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best part is being in a position to encourage people to strive to be their best selves – whether that’s through their learning, their research, their service to the community, or their leadership. The worst thing is that there are often situations in which a decision must be made but there isn’t a satisfying or good solution, or in which I have information that would help people understand why I have made a particular decision, but it would be unethical or illegal to share it.
What divides your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
Two things: before and after I went to college, and before and after my son was born. Both were life-changing events that shifted my identity and made my entire future look different to me.
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Mark Jolly has been announced as director of manufacturing at Cranfield University. Professor Jolly joined Cranfield in 2012 as professor of sustainable manufacturing.
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