Interview with Newly Appointed Provost Sarah R. Kirk

By Liz Crimmins ’24

Staff Writer

The Herald (TH): Tell us about yourself, where did you go to school, how did you wind up here? 

Provost Sarah Kirk (PK): I went to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, which is a small liberal arts college and studied chemistry there.  While at Whitman I played on the soccer team and was panhellenic president.  I then spent seven years in San Diego, first I went to graduate school at University of California San Diego, and then teaching at the University of San Diego. Followed by my first tenured track position teaching chemistry at Willamette University in Salem Oregon. I then spent nearly 20 years at Willamette first as a professor and then chairing the department and moving up into administration as an associate dean, interim dean, and then provost, which is how I ended up here! I am a strong believer in the liberal arts education; one of my favorite classes was my senior seminar where students came together from different disciplines and read books together and talked about things from the perspectives of various disciplines. I think the most interesting problems are at the intersection of bringing together different perspectives and ideas. 

(TH): What does your day to day look like now? What would you day to day look like without Covid? 

(PK): With Covid there are a lot of thoughts about how we keep everyone as safe as possible and keep the best parts of what we can about college, in terms of building community.  My day-to-day work is about meeting with as many people as I can and learning about the colleges and what makes the colleges distinct and what aspects are special to the experience here. I also spend a lot of time thinking about the curricular structure, and I would say HWS is a well-kept secret, and I would like us not to be a well-kept secret.  I would really like to be shouting from the rooftops about how wonderful a community this is, so I spend a lot of time thinking about, “How do I work with faculty to understand the things we do really well?” I want to understand where we want to strategically use our resources to highlight those strengths and become even better.  On the flip side, I ask the question, “What do we not need to still be doing, what can we let go of?” 

(TH): What are your plans for changes or what would you like to implement at the colleges?  

(PK): I have had an eye towards equity for a long time. Part of what I’m interested in looking at is the ways in which we use our resources, and in particular, how are people spending their time? Are we thoughtful about the work that people do and honoring the work that most aligns with the values that we hold? I am also interested in innovating and pushing people to think differently in an area that highlights their skills.  We have an exceptional group of faculty, and we continue to think about the ways in which we can continue to support and grow in the work that they are doing directly with students.   

(TH): If you could take one class on campus, or major in something new what would you choose? 

(PK): I think I would like to take a class in Sociology or American studies.  I am a medicinal chemist, so I have spent a lot of time thinking about access to medical care and inequities, so a lot of my attention has turned that way. I would love to get a stronger grounding in some of the foundational theories about the ways in which our structures have been created.   

(TH): What is one piece of advice you would like to share with this generation of “Covid students”? 

(PK): I think that Covid has caused us all to connect deeper with those around us, and in some sense emboldened this fear of the unknown. When it comes to engaging with people outside of your little cohort, people in our political system are so polarized, so I think my advice would be to engage with people who think differently than you, who have a different background than you, or maybe a different philosophy than you. Spend some time listening to each other and engaging and participate in respectful conversation.  My other advice is to have fun! You have to balance the seriousness with lightness.   

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