On July 1, 2016, Maurie McInnis will be UT-Austin’s next executive vice president and provost, president Greg Fenves announced Monday in an email to students, faculty, and staff. Currently vice provost for academic affairs and a professor of art history at the University of Virginia, McInnis studies the cultural history of American art in the South. She has published or edited five books and dozens of scholarly articles, collaborated with museums and historic sites, and penned columns for Slate and The New York Times. McInnis will also be the university’s first female permanent provost, following interim provost Judith Langlois. She spoke with the Alcalde about art history, why the past is like a foreign country, and Scottish murder mysteries.
How did you become an art historian?
Like many, I started my undergraduate career thinking I wanted to become a physician. But first semester, first year, I wandered into an art history class and that became my love and passion. So about halfway through college I made that phone call home to my parents and said ‘Guess what? I’m not going to be a doctor, and I’m going to major in art history,’ and they supported me through all that.
Tell me about your research.
My work is very interdisciplinary and extends far outside the bounds of art history. I would probably be better characterized as a cultural historian. My research has ended up focusing on the American South and the relationship between art and architecture and landscapes, how those provide us a way to understand the past. Art history gives people a way to understand the past that for many is much more accessible than just text-based history. You can describe the past as a foreign country, which I think is accurate—it can be hard to truly grasp. I think that art history and the material world is one of the best ways to connect to how people really lived.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing universities today?
There are many. Certainly access to American higher education is always going to be something we’re struggling with—making sure we can ensure excellence and affordability. We always want to make sure the nation’s brightest students have access to the very best education. We need to innovate in ways that are going to serve our students well. What happens at UT has the opportunity to lead the direction for where American higher education should go. That’s what so exciting—to be a part of an institution that’s already innovative and thinking about these issues.
Can you tell me about a book you’re reading at the moment?
I’m reading a trilogy of murder mysteries set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, which is one of the remote Hebrides islands. My family background is Scottish, and these are places I’ve visited and am quite intrigued by. These islands are so remote from the mainland, and 75 percent of the people there still speak Gaelic. Peter May, the author, does a great job of capturing that.
On the academic side, I’m reading a series of books by Calvin Schermerhorn and Ed Baptist focused on American slavery. There’s recently been a lot of new scholarship focusing on the role that slavery has played in the formation of American capitalism.
What do you do outside of work?
I have two children, a son who is 16 and a daughter who is 12, so a lot of my free time is focused on them. I’m also an active person and I like to go cycling, hiking, a variety of things like that. We travel a lot, and I’m an avid amateur photographer, so I take photos on our travels. One of the beautiful things about art history is that anywhere you want to go in the world is educational.
Photo by Phillip de Jong
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