New Dean of the College opens up about life before W&L, getting used to campus

Dean Lena Hill is excited to diversify the university as she works out of the newly renamed Simpson House

Dean Lena Hill. Photo courtesy of Justin Torner, staff photographer at the University of Iowa.

Dean Lena Hill. Photo courtesy of Justin Torner, staff photographer at the University of Iowa.

Laura Calhoun

A set of Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books were the centerpiece of Dean Lena Hill’s living room as a child. Her love for learning and English manifested itself early on in her life.

“I would read plays by Shakespeare when I was very young. I knew at that time that there was something unique about the way that made me feel,” Hill said.

From that moment, she knew she wanted to be an English professor, even though she didn’t know anyone in that profession. A program at her high school allowed her to shadow a female African-American English professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, an opportunity that solidified her desire to work in higher education.

“We talked about what it meant to teach, to research, but also to balance one’s professional goals and investment with one’s personal values,” Hill said. “It was important to me, thinking about the kind of life I wanted to lead, that I would have a job that allowed me to manage both.”

Hill went on to complete her undergraduate degree with a major in English at Howard University in Washington, D.C., during which time she also spent a semester at Williams College and in Italy.

Besides her academic curiosity, which led Hill to expand her education by minoring in Biology and studying abroad, curiosity also played a role in her extracurricular activities.

“At Howard, I was a cheerleader. At Williams, I played rugby,” Hill said. “I always wanted to have a range of experiences.”

After graduating from Howard University, Hill continued her education at Yale University, receiving a doctorate in English. One of her favorite things about her graduate studies was the archival research she completed, focused on the works of Ralph Ellison and Hill’s favorite author, Zora Neale Hurston.

Though she enjoys the research component of higher education, Hill said that time spent in the classroom working with students is the most rewarding part of her job.

“Every time you bring a text into the classroom, you have a different experience because you are sharing it with a different group of highly engaged students,” Hill said. “That, to me, has always been a magical experience.”

Hill is looking forward to teaching next semester, but also welcomes the time this fall to acclimate to her duties as Dean of the College. In the meantime, Hill is focusing on familiarizing herself with the Washington and Lee community, where she has felt welcomed by the students and her colleagues.’

“You don’t know a place until you’re living and working within it,” Hill said. “Parents Weekend, the Board of Trustees meeting—each of these experiences gives me a deeper, more nuanced sense of who we are.”

Students and faculty were excited to meet Hill when she visited campus last winter term during the hiring process. Provost Marc Conner, who created a committee to review applicants for the position of Dean of the College, said that Hill met with over 100 people in one day—and that they were all impressed and enthusiastic.

“You’ve got somebody who’s wicked smart, a great listener—who doesn’t want to be in that person’s presence?” Conner said.

Conner believed Hill was the best person for the job because of her intelligence, previous administrative experience and communication skills.

A self-proclaimed “unapologetic advocate of the liberal arts education,” Hill is most excited to further develop the curricula of the College, as inspired by the recently released strategic plan. She also looks forward to helping diversify the faculty at Washington and Lee.

“We want to continue to maintain our competitive edge,” Hill said. “As we diversify our student body, our students are going to want to see and engage with faculty who are as diverse as they are.”

The university’s strategic plan outlines increasing the diversity of Washington and Lee as a key goal. The Board of Trustees’ decision to change the name of the office of the Dean of the College from Lee-Jackson House to Simpson House, in honor of the first female faculty member to receive tenure at Washington and Lee, is a step in the right direction, Hill said.

“I was never discomforted by working in the Lee-Jackson House, but I am going to truly be honored to work in the Pamela Simpson House,” Hill said. “As we all seek to understand our longer history, it’s important in my mind that we recognize contributors like Professor Simpson who, long after the nineteenth century, fundamentally shaped who we are today.”

In her spare time, Hill enjoys reading, online shopping and planning parties for her children. Her favorite part of Lexington thus far are the mountains, something that the flatlands of Iowa lacked.

Conner said he believes that Hill is the perfect addition to the university at a critical time in our growth.

“Her star is on the rise. I think you want somebody in the leadership role who’s going to go up and take the school with her,” Conner said. “The sky’s the limit.”