Dr. Joan Neff—distinguished teacher and scholar, accomplished musician and martial arts black belt—was introduced last week during a reception in The Rotunda as Longwood's next provost and vice president for academic affairs. Currently associate provost at the University of Richmond, she will assume office at Longwood this summer, succeeding Ken Perkins.
EDUCATION: B.A., University of Delaware; M.A., The Ohio State University; Ph.D., The Ohio State University
CAREER: University of Richmond faculty member, sociology (1980-present), associate dean of arts and sciences (1986-94), associate provost (2009-present)
FAMILY: Husband Mike Banks, a photographer, three children—Jennifer, 31, Patrick, 28, and Samantha, 24—and four grandchildren, all under the age of five.
First things first: you’re a fourth-degree black belt in tae kwon do? How did you get into that?
When my children were teenagers we decided to try it as a family for recreation and fitness. After a few years, everyone else dropped out. I kept at it.
You’re also an accomplished church organist. Are your musical and martial arts hobbies complementary?
Yes! Both require self-discipline and practice, as well as coordinating the movements of hands and feet to develop muscle memory. They also both have a rhythmic structure and a sense of harmony. The only time they aren’t complementary is when you break a finger blocking a kick, which happened to me a few years ago. Fortunately the break was minor, and it healed quickly and completely.
Does tae kwon do ever come in handy as an academic administrator?
Yes, but not in the way you might imagine. It’s a great stress reliever. When I walk into the dojang I have to leave work concerns or issues outside the door. I need to focus on what I will learn that day and make certain that my sparring partner and I don’t get injured. At the end of class I feel relaxed and ready to go back to work with a fresh perspective.
Provost is an odd academic title. How would you explain the job description?
The provost oversees the core mission of the university – educating the students. It’s the provost’s responsibility to make sure the curricula are of the highest quality, and to ensure the integrity of all academic programs. He or she is also a leader of the faculty, charged with recruiting, nurturing and retaining the best teachers and scholars in the field, and exciting them about the institution’s mission.
What attracted you about Longwood?
Longwood’s focus on providing students with a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences while preserving access and affordability was very appealing to me. I also have a great affinity for the concept of educating "citizen-leaders." Longwood’s vision of citizen leadership, represented by the intersection of education, values and service, is the bedrock on which our society is built and can continue to prosper.
But I actually think there’s something even more distinctive and special about Longwood. As I talked with President Reveley and others over the last few months, I really picked up on the wonderful and vibrant sense of tradition and continuity that energizes Longwood. The sense of history and place here really complement the mission in a way that you don't find in many institutions.
Finally, I have been impressed from the beginning by the excitement and enthusiasm of the faculty, staff, and students for Longwood’s future, and their confidence in the value of the educational experience Longwood provides.
How do you envision your first few months on the job? Do you have a sense already of your big goals, or will there be more of a listening and learning phase?
Several themes have started to emerge as I have met with folks over the past couple of months, but before announcing any big goals, I want to learn more. I have just begun to scratch the surface in those areas, and what I really need is to take some deep dives. My analytical side is very data-driven, and at this point, I need more detailed data – both quantitative and qualitative.
We're in an era of constant talk about transformational change in higher education. Where do you think Longwood should be looking to change - and where should it be resisting change?
A lot of the talk about higher education involves the value proposition; i.e., whether the expense of a college education is worth the money in the long run. Some institutions will be trying to deliver education less expensively by increasing student populations, increasing class sizes, or developing more online courses and programs. The question is whether those changes will diminish the quality of the educational experience. Longwood has a strong tradition of providing students with a high quality affordable education in a residential college setting, and I believe that model is of extraordinary value to society, and will prove resilient. Although it may be possible to adopt certain changes, such as judiciously using online classes or hybrid classes at the graduate level, Longwood should not lose sight of the value of educating undergraduates in a residential setting that focuses on a holistic understanding of what it means to educate citizen-leaders.
You're a sociologist by training, with a long record of scholarly expertise and research. How has that perspective influenced you as a leader?
Being a sociologist allows me to understand the relationship between the individual and the larger social whole to which he or she belongs. That really does help when you’re working to unite people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints in the service of the common good.
What are you looking forward to about living in Farmville?
The thing I am most looking forward to is being a member of a community rather than a resident of subdivision. Don’t get me wrong – I have enjoyed living in Richmond, but as the metropolitan area has grown, it has become more difficult to get to know people. I like going to the grocery store and seeing people I know and stopping to chat. It takes longer to shop when that happens, but it makes life much more enjoyable.