With the recent re-launch of the Women in the Academy (WITA) mentorship program, we wanted to share an interview* from the spring of 2022 between Provost Nancy Brickhouse and our former Associate Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Beth Allison Barr. We hope this interview serves as an encouragement and inspiration for women in academia to pursue roles in administration! We’re certainly grateful for the women here at Baylor who work to make this university a better and more equitable place for all.

*This interview transcript has been edited for cohesion and readability.

Dr. Beth Allison Barr

I tell people all the time that I was an accidental administrator. I never thought when I was getting my PhD in History that anyone would ever want to put me in charge of something other than looking at 15th century manuscripts. But as my career progressed, I kept being pulled into administrative roles, and I found that I liked it. And, as I talked to more faculty, one of the things that I found is that most faculty felt like accidental administrators; they didn’t go into it with a plan. They didn’t really think about strategic things that they should have done that would have been helpful along the way. So, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to get one of our successful administrators, our provost, who will go down in history as presiding over us becoming an R1 institution! I think that is a very successful legacy.

So, without further ado, let me introduce you to our provost, Nancy Brickhouse. There is a lot I could say about Nancy Brickhouse. Working in the Graduate School has allowed me to meet a lot of the higher administration, and I have really enjoyed getting to work with Provost Brickhouse. She is one of the most perceptive administrators that I know. She doesn’t miss anything, which is really good and really helpful and also scary! Provost Brickhouse earned her PhD at Purdue. She has a Master’s in Chemistry and her PhD in Science Education. She started off her academic trajectory at Baylor where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and with her Bachelor’s in Chemistry. She went on to teach in high schools in Texas before receiving her Master’s and her PhD. Since earning her PhD, she not only became a tenured professor at the University of Delaware, but she also became their interim provost. After that, she became the provost of St. Louis University from 2015 to 2019. Then in 2019, she became the provost of Baylor University, and I could make a lot of jokes about how she has outlasted so many.

So, what we’re going to do for the next few minutes is this: I have a few questions that I came up with, with some help from a few graduate students, to ask Provost Brickhouse. We’re going to do a little bit of an interview, and then we’re going to open the floor, since Provost Brickhouse has agreed to answer some of your questions on the floor. So, to start us off, could you tell us a little bit more about your academic background, and what led you into administration to begin with?

Provost Nancy Brickhouse

Well, like you said, I never really had any plans to do this. Nobody says that they want to be a provost when they grow up! And I certainly had no intentions of ever going into administration. That was not part of the plan. I mean, I studied chemistry here! I was always a good student, but when I graduated, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. And, you know, teaching high school – I didn’t teach for very long, but I have to say, it was life-changing for me. It was an experience where the work that I did made a difference in the trajectory of these kids’ lives. I taught in Van, Texas. We were bused from 60 miles away; it was very rural. And anyway, I just fell in love with it.

So I went to Purdue, because I still identified as a chemist, but my doctoral program actually had education within the chemistry department. And that seemed like a good fit for me. I didn’t intend to stay for a PhD, but I fell in love with the research, and I fell in love with questions related to the public understanding of science as well. How is it that people use science in their civic lives? I also got married in graduate school; my husband and I had to get jobs at the same time, which can be a challenge! I ended up a faculty member at the University of Delaware, and I was scared to death. I went from being in a program where I was one of the only women. I was very accustomed to being the only woman when I was in the Chemistry program here at Baylor. I think there were two women in the entire Chemistry program, and it wasn’t much better at Purdue. But going into a School of Education where it was about half and half, I’d have to say I preferred the mixed environment. It just felt more invigorating to me.

University of Delaware was a great fit for me. I had a department chair, and I’ll never forget when he told me, “You know, I think you should think about administration.” I was kind of like, “Okay, I’ll think about it tomorrow – but not today!” But I still remember it; he just planted that seed. And part of it was that I was a little fearless in faculty meetings. And it’s one of the things that I really struggle with today when I hear people talk about being afraid to speak up, worried that somebody’s going to be upset with them. Because I never really felt that. I guess I would say that one of the things I learned is that people actually do want to know what you think. And you must, to some degree, trust them that it’s okay. I mean, you have to do it. You have to do it respectfully – you don’t do it in a know-it-all kind of way.

So I was put on a promotion and tenure committee as an assistant professor. That turned out to be extremely controversial. But in my case, people learned that you could put me in a difficult position and I could manage that. I didn’t do any real administration until after I achieved full professor. This is not going to sound very nice, but I think I went into administration because I got bored. I couldn’t stay teaching the same course over and over and over, and that was my future, because they didn’t have other people that could teach what I taught. I was looking at another two decades of teaching the same course. It’s not that I didn’t want the students, but I wanted more than that. And my field was moving too slowly. I was frustrated because everyone was still asking the same questions.

I think also having kids made a difference. Before I had kids, I was very happy living in a very theoretical world. But once I had kids, I had a much harder time with that. I wanted to get something done. I just ran out of patience. So, I was asked to step in when there was some turnover, and they asked me to step in first as Associate Director of the School of Education and then as Director. And then a new president came to the university, and I was asked to serve on a university-wide Strategic Planning Committee. That was really transformative, because that was the first time that I had the opportunity to think beyond my own department, to think at the university level and try to understand the university as a whole. And I have to say, it was really fun. The two chairs of that committee, watching them work together was hilarious. They were great. One was a chemical engineer, and the other was in art conservation, and they brought such different perspectives and skills to the conversation, but watching how they worked together to put together a great plan really made a big difference in terms of how I developed an understanding of the way a university works and developing connections across campus. So that’s how I ended up in administration!


I really love that. In fact, you’re making me feel a little sad, because I think one of my favorite parts about being an administrator is that you see things get accomplished. It’s really satisfying to be able to do that, as well as to know how things work. I wish that I had known what I know now when I was earlier in my career, because it would have made a difference in how I thought and how I understood things. Those are some of the things I love about administration.

Most people here are graduate students, of course, so they’re thinking towards careers and becoming faculty. What is the main difference between being a faculty member and an administrator?


They’re really different, in that I don’t get much alone time. I’m pretty well scheduled, whereas faculty, a lot of the work that you’re doing, it’s a much more solitary kind of work, generally speaking. In faculty work, also, you’re going deep. Whereas a provost knows a little bit about a lot of different things. So that is almost the opposite of the life of a really good faculty member. I do think it’s important to have that faculty experience, and this is something I want to stress because it’s really important: there are a lot of people who want to take shortcuts into administration. And on the academic route, there is not a shortcut. Going through the academic experience, and being a faculty member and having that credibility, and understanding the nature of faculty work and having that experience of actually creating knowledge, that’s very important for a provost. Now that’s not true for other administrative experiences, but for my role, there’s not a shortcut. And sometimes, people will try to make the jump too early in their careers. It oftentimes does not turn out well.


Can I jump ahead to a question that I think it goes with what you said? If you thought about your daily work, how much of it is visionary, and how much of it is just putting out fires?


I love that question. And it’s neither! I am blessed with other people who put out fires, and they are good at it. Really good at it. So, I don’t have to do a lot of putting out fires. Visionary? The problem with that is that you must have a chunk of time, which is precious. I feel like I work at the tactical level a great deal of the time, getting things done, setting goals, making good hires, making decisions around promotion and tenure. These are all very important decisions, but I wouldn’t describe them as high-level visionary. They’re also not putting out fires. So, I would say it’s somewhere in between. I spend a lot of time with the deans, a lot of time with the President’s Council, and working with the Board of Regents. I love working with President Livingstone; she’s very intentional. The way that she manages and the way that she manages up is different than any other president that I’ve ever worked with.

So how else do I spend my time? My time is extremely collaborative. And that’s the other thing. For people going into administration, you really do have to have a certain amount of social intelligence. Because you’re spending most of your time with people. And academics are not necessarily… *laughter from audience* Sometimes it doesn’t take that many social skills to actually stand out!


Clearly, you’ve shown us that your days are full, and your weeks are full. How do you avoid burnout as an administrator, especially with the emotional toll of being around people all the time and having to manage people with different emotions?


So, I live in Lorena. When I go home at night, I go home. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally work at home. I do work at home, but I still feel like I’m away from the office. I walk about three or four miles a day, and where I live, I can name the birds. We have all sorts of animals, we have goats. But it’s just a beautiful setting. I feel very connected to God. It gives me an opportunity to pray, to release a little. I just feel comfort in my own space. And I think it makes a huge difference.


Do you turn your phone off or have it where only certain numbers come through that are important?


I completely silence it.


I need to learn to do that.


You know, it’s funny; the President’s Council met and had a retreat. Our focus was to talk about the Sabbath, and a speaker came from the seminary. He was terrific, and he works with a lot of pastors who deal with burnout. But we were also there as a President’s Council, just encouraging one another. We don’t mean Sabbath literally, so much as we mean that you need to make an intentional decision about how you spend your time when you’re not at work; time where you are disconnected, when you have time for prayer, or you have time for communion with people who are important to you, and doing things that bring you joy. You need to make an intentional decision that you’re going to devote the time to that. Some of us are better at it than others.


That is a good thing though! I think for everyone here, for graduate students as well as faculty, because in some ways being in academia is a job that never ends. It’s a job where you could always do more, but we can’t. I love that y’all are intentional about that.

So, I think before we open the floor to questions, a question I know a lot of folks have had is this: if someone is interested in moving into administration, what advice would you have? How do you know if you’re cut out for it?


So, for advice I would say this: you’re at the beginning of your career – just focus on doing your job really, really well. Be known as someone who does good work. And when given an assignment, be someone who delivers on time. Develop a reputation as being dependable. That’s what people are looking for – someone who has real integrity. Don’t take things personally. What will happen is that people will notice, and you’ll begin to be asked to do things, and when you’re asked to do things, just do them.

As for how you know if you’re cut out for it… does it bring you joy? I think that, generally speaking, people enjoy doing things when they’re good at them. I mean, does anybody like doing things that they’re not very good at?


There are some parts of my job that haven’t brought me joy, but then there’s other parts that have compensated for it.


And that’s why we pay you for it! But that’s a good thing too. You will never find a job where you like all aspects of it.


Well, I think it’s time now, we can open the floor for some questions!

Audience Member #1

So, there’s always a sense of obligation where you feel like you have to say “yes” to everything. In your experience with these opportunities that come, how did you manage between saying “no” because it would have been better for your mental health or your life and saying “yes” to an opportunity that looks like will be good?


Saying “no” has not been a strength. I do think it’s important to decide what’s really important for you to do. So sometimes what I’ll say instead of “no” is I’ll say, “I can’t do it right now.” Sometimes you do have to realize when you’re at your limit, and you just can’t do anything more.

Other questions?

Audience Member #2

You mentioned your work as being shallow across a number of areas instead of deep in one area. Is there an area that you find yourself particularly wanting to be deeper in after having a broad experience of it?


Whatever challenge arises that I need to work on, I find myself getting to know that particular area pretty well. But when a problem arises, you find yourself learning what goes on in a particular office at a whole new level of detail. So, I don’t know that my new learnings are necessarily motivated by my desire to know something about a particular area so much as they arise largely out of a need. It is one of the things that keeps the job interesting. There’s a lot of opportunities to learn new stuff all the time.


Early on, one of the things that got me attracted to administration was that it was different and always changing. That really appealed to me. It’s always interesting. We never have a boring day.

Audience Member #3

One thing about your role is that it’s very public. And you are making very high stakes, high-level decisions that have significant impacts on other people, whether it’s faculty or students or alumni who may or may not have very strong opinions about certain decisions. How do you insulate or protect yourself from that or be resilient to things that are unfair but perhaps outside of your control?


I think it just comes with the territory. I do think that in this kind of role you have develop a thick skin. People say crazy things, and you can’t always control it. You just have to recognize that we’re all made a little different. Some folks are going to disagree. And sometimes – here’s the harder part – sometimes they’re right.

Audience Member #4

You’ve spoken about what it’s like going from the faculty experience into a provost position. I wonder how much of your experience as an instructor working with students informs what you do as an administrator, or if it is a full switch from being a teacher and now an administrator?


I think the main way that it informs my work is largely being able to have conversations with other faculty about teaching and about the lives of their students. Having spent a lot of time in the classroom very focused on student success, I think keeping that as a priority for the institution is one of the things that’s really important for Baylor right now. We just celebrated hitting R1. I love being able to hit this type of marker and take the time to pause and celebrate. But, you know, that doesn’t tell you everything about what Baylor is as an institution, and we can’t lose sight. There are R1 universities I would not want to be a part of. So, it’s important to keep the Baylor community focused on our commitments to our students. One of the things I just love about our students is that they’re so full of life. Their lives are so intertwined with our lives in ways that you just don’t see at public institutions. We need to be very intentional to make sure we continue to cultivate that as we also continue to raise our game in terms of scholarship.

Audience Member #5

What are the feedback loops of getting the opinion of the student body versus the administrative view or the faculty point of view? And how do you communicate your vision to those different parties?


Wow. I mean, that’s one of the hardest parts of the job. Because being the provost, people don’t always tell you things. *laughter from the audience* I’m serious! You have to intentionally seek things out. One of the things I’m doing right now is meeting with faculty departments. I can tell a lot about what’s going on in the department by spending thirty minutes with them. But getting beyond that, to the chair level and then all the way down to the faculty level, that’s one of the most challenging parts of my job.

The student question is also a very interesting one. Student organizations don’t report to the provost at Baylor. A lot of places do but not here – which is fine, by the way. Kevin Jackson, who is the Vice President for Student Life, and I work very closely together and very well together. And increasingly, he’s inviting me to do things like speak with various student groups. And it’s not necessarily important for me to speak to student groups, but it is important for me to hear from student groups. It’s fascinating. So, I take those opportunities when I can.

Can we take one more question?

Audience Member #6

I really liked what you said about being early career faculty, not shooting for the top but just kind of doing your job with excellence and hoping that provides opportunities. But are there any skills that you wish you had developed before going into administration? One of the things Dr. Barr and I have joked about is that academics don’t know how to do budgets, but if you’re put in an administrative role, especially in the humanities, that’s not training you’ve ever received. We don’t do numbers. So, what are some of those skills that would have been helpful to develop before going into administration, or that we could maybe work on while we’re early career faculty to set us up in the best possible way when administrative opportunities come across our paths?


You know, those kinds of skills I’m not sure I would recommend. And the reason why I say that is that things like budgets work differently, depending on the context. I think the better way of thinking about it is more what Beth was saying: getting to know what else is going on at an institution is a really good way of preparing yourself. Know what else is going on from a scholarship perspective, curricular changes, that kind of awareness. Maybe don’t worry about the technical side. You’ll learn that at the point when you need to know.

I’ll tell you a funny story, and I’ll close with this. When I was at the University of Delaware, I served as the provost for an interim year there, and my son started there as a first-year student in the same year. He comes to my office because he needs to get registered. “Don’t you have an advisor?” I asked him. “I don’t know how to get you registered! There are so many things I really don’t know how to do. I don’t know how to do everything.” But he felt I was hopeless, and he didn’t think I was cool again until he discovered that I could cancel a class!