When Wendy K. Wilkins arrived in August as UNT's new provost and vice president for academic affairs, she had a few items on her to-do list. But it wasn't a long list. Wilkins says she saw a university already full of momentum, a team she could join and a place destined for great — and greater — things.
During her interviews at UNT, she found the university compelling.
"The closer I got, the better it looked," says Wilkins, who had several high-profile academic and administrative positions at American and international institutions before coming to UNT. "That's not the case with many universities, with those whose reputation exceeds their reality."
Wilkins was attracted by President Gretchen M. Bataille's substantive academic background and the sense of teamwork Wilkins found. She says at UNT there is an administrative group that "really works as a team with a shared understanding of the processes that are important to faculty and students."
Wilkins' goals as chief academic officer are to build on existing academic strengths and identify immediate challenges that need prompt attention. This certainly seems straightforward enough, but UNT is a large, dynamic campus, and Wilkins says getting to know the faculty and its work has been all-consuming as well as pleasantly surprising.
"One of the things that makes UNT attractive is that it's a university on the move — it is moving forward and getting stronger," says Wilkins, who also is the first woman in the university's 117-year history to hold the position of provost. "There are really exciting things here — fabulous faculty and equally fabulous students."
Building on experience
Wilkins' extensive background in higher education makes her the perfect choice to help solidify UNT's position as a student-centered public research university with high expectations for the future, says Gary S. Krahenbuhl, who served as interim provost before Wilkins arrived and is a previous senior vice president at Arizona State University.
"Dr. Wilkins is smart, thoughtful, experienced and wise," Krahenbuhl says. "She brings impressive administrative talent to UNT."
Wilkins, who is fluent in Spanish, previously was professor of linguistics and director of graduate studies at Michigan State University and had served for six years as the dean of the College of Arts and Letters there. She has served in academic and administrative positions at Arizona State University and as a faculty member at the University of Washington and two Mexico City institutions: Centro de Estudios Lingüísticos y Literarios, El Colegio de México, and Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Ixtapalapa.
From dance to linguistics
Wilkins was raised in the Phoenix area, and her favorite childhood activities were dance lessons and horseback riding.
After high school, she headed for Bennington College as a dance major, but a lingering knee injury that turned out to be the "happiest accident of my life" ended her dance aspirations. She enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, attracted first to Latin American studies, then to Spanish, then to linguistics.
"I was interested in Noam Chomsky's focus on language and cognition," she says. "I loved it. I loved learning what's special about language, what makes it learnable by human beings, and what's special about human beings that makes the infant of the species so language-learning capable. So I went into that part of linguistics that was about human cognition."
Wilkins' primary research training is in syntactic theory, and her research interests include the evolutionary biology of language, cognitive science, language acquisition and comparative linguistic and musical cognition.
Her passion for horses remains just as strong. Wilkins' Arabian mare, MSU Spellbound, and her husband's quarter horse mare, Miss Sonny Sawyer, recently arrived in Texas. She's enjoyed getting them settled and the occasional chance to relax with a little horseback riding.
Wilkins is eagerly getting involved at UNT, taking the time to listen and talk with faculty members and striving to learn as much as possible about the university's academics and research.
When first arriving at UNT, Wilkins was aware of nationally known academic programs in music and visual arts but says she has continued to uncover innovative teaching and interdisciplinary activities in numerous departments within all of the schools and colleges.
The university's international connections also are a positive, she says, especially in view of UNT's commitment to prepare students for the changing and diverse global community.
"We are known in many countries, and many universities want to partner with us, which is definitely something we want to build on," Wilkins says.
Building on UNT's legacy as a top-quality institution will help ensure the university continues to make a difference through its research and graduates around the globe, she says.
"I am extremely excited to work at a university that is student centered but also is an emerging research university and is well known for its strengths in many areas," Wilkins says. "I know our university will just keep getting stronger."