New Provost Settles into JU

Wenying Xu, Ph.D., Envisions Campus Growth, Sustainability

From her sun-splashed office on the third floor of the Howard building, Wenying Xu, Ph.D., can see a brilliant new Jacksonville University. The freshman class GPA, the percentage of international students at JU, and the rate of participation in study abroad trips are all up from previous years, but Xu envisions further increases as JU becomes a truly selective, global school for the 21st century.

“President Cost wants us to become the best and she came on board knowing that,” said Professor of Nursing Pam Rillstone, Ph.D..

Rillstone, who served on the search committee for JU’s new provost and chief academic officer, is confident that Xu’s leadership skills are up to the task. So is her boss. In a May letter to the JU community, President Tim Cost, Ph.D., called Xu “one of the finest, most engaged and dedicated professionals in all of academia nationwide.”

Xu, a Shanghai native, has taught English on the university level for over thirty years. Her most recent administrative appointment was vice president for academic affairs at Chatham University, a small liberal arts university in Pittsburgh.

Finding a Place at JU 

Xu officially replaced interim officer Bill Crosby, Ph.D., on July 7. Her appointment came at the end of an extensive search process that fielded hundreds of applications. Associate Professor of Management Julius Demps, Ph.D., helped to sort through those applications.

“Xu’s experience, her interpersonal skills, and her passion were what stood out most,” Demps said. “Early on, she was a clear favorite. She is poised, polished, sincere and genuine.”

According to Rillstone, Xu’s “tremendous energy and charisma,” along with her “openness and willingness to listen to the faculty,” set her apart.

“She was so inquisitive and she wanted to know what works, what our challenges were,” Rillstone said. “She asked very relevant questions exploring what she was coming into.”

The provost may be thought of as an internal president, according to biology and marine science professor Lee Ann Clements, Ph.D., who also served on the search committee.

“The provost’s responsibility is to make sure that our academic programs are run with honesty and integrity, that they have the resources and faculty that are needed and the needs of faculty and students are taken care of,” Clements said.

Clements said she was drawn not only to Xu’s open and direct leadership style, but to her many years as a professor. That experience, said Clements, complements President Cost’s business background and enables Xu to understand the faculty’s perspective.

“I think often that people who are outside of academia think that all we do is what we do in the classroom,” Clements said. “They don’t understand the amount of preparation, the demand of grading, and not just grading but mentoring students, and practice with writing, which is important in the liberal arts.”

A Background of Experience

Xu’s own background is firmly rooted in the liberal arts. Since receiving her Ph.D. in English from the University of Pittsburgh in 1994, she has published numerous articles and books on her chief interests: 19th-century American realism, Asian-American literature, and food identities in literature. She pursued her undergraduate degree as part of the first generation of post-Cultural Revolution college students.

“If you say ‘the ’77 class’ in China, everyone knows what that means,” Xu said. “A lot of ministers and so forth came from the ’77 class. Here, it requires a bit of explanation.”

As physicians, Xu’s parents were considered “too educated” during the Cultural Revolution. Xu’s father spent three years in prison, while her mother was sent to a farm to be reeducated. Xu raised her younger brother by herself. After China “opened up,” students of all backgrounds were permitted to sit for university entrance exams. Less than 1.5 percent of those students received admission to college, and Xu was among them.

Xu left China in 1985 and “fell in love” with the United States. While happy at Chatham, Xu was pleased to learn of a vacant position in Florida, where she could enjoy warmer weather and greater proximity to her husband and her son, now an undergraduate at Florida Atlantic University. Jacksonville University, Xu said, quickly won her over with its dedicated faculty, talented president, and its unique setting on the river.

“Once I came to visit, I was convinced that this was the right place,” Xu said just days before Homecoming. The golden dolphins dangling from her ears silently reinforced her commitment to JU.

Looking to the Future

Eager to see JU become “a selective destination for US and international students,” Xu has initiated conversations about reforming the core curriculum, promoting a global mindset, and offering more trans-disciplinary courses.

“Today’s problems take a multidisciplinary approach,” Xu said. “No single discipline has all the answers. I like to break down the silos between disciplines, team teach and promote integrative learning, examine the same object or subject through two or three different lenses. It’s been done in the past, but I’d like it to be done systematically.”

Xu plans to oversee the development of additional minors and certificates that, like the new nine-credit certificate in entrepreneurship, will give JU graduates an advantage in the job market. She also advocates experiential learning, such as a hands-on course in developing webpages or YouTube videos.

Though barely three months into her new role, Xu has made an impression on such faculty members as Timothy Snyder, Ph.D., assistant professor of music, and Carole Barnett, Ph.D., professor of humanities, both former search committee members.

“I’ve been impressed with her energy and intelligence,” said Snyder. “She’s done her homework on the institution and has already diagnosed some key areas in which we can grow and improve. I look forward to the years ahead for our institution under her leadership.”

“Her strength for me is she’s viewing our campus as a global campus,” Barnett said. “She’s going to outreach to different countries to bring diversity to our student body. I think JU is going to benefit from her leadership, and it’s is going to go beyond the confines of our campus.” In fact, hoping to make the community aware of the good things happening at JU, Xu has spoken of circulating a community newsletter, according to Clements.

To Xu, strengthening liberal arts education depends on cultivating what she called “the three C’s” of courage, curiosity and creativity. Courage involves personally forming, articulating, and standing by informed decisions. Curiosity, said Xu, comes from students who are “lifelong learners, never static, never satisfied with what they know.” Creativity requires students to think outside the box.

“The jobs they are preparing themselves for may not be there when they graduate,” Xu said. “They may have to create their own job.”

According to Xu, studies indicate that graduates of liberal arts programs receive higher-paying jobs in the long run because they have developed traits that cannot be taught to their peers, including an action-oriented mentality, writing and speaking skills, and interpretive ability.

For anyone who questions the connection between education, hard work, and success, there may be no better point of reference than Xu herself.