Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities, a chat with Karen Lawrence

School of Humanities at UC Irvine
18 min readNov 2, 2020


A headshot of Karen Lawrence smiling in front of a brown stone wall

In this episode of “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities at UCI, interviews Karen Lawrence, president of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Tyrus Miller (0:07–0:58): Welcome to “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities.” I’m Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities and I’m especially pleased to be joined by Karen Lawrence, president of the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens where she’s been since 2018. Karen has vast leadership experience. She served as the president of Sarah Lawrence College for 10 years and before that as dean of the UCI School of Humanities from 1998 to 2007. She currently serves on the board of the National Humanities Center. In addition, she is a widely respected scholar and teacher of English and Irish literature with numerous books and publications.

Thanks for joining me, Karen, and welcome back to UCI Humanities.

Karen Lawrence (0:59–1:03): Thanks and it’s a pleasure and I look forward to a non-virtual return sometime.

Miller (1:04–1:48): That will be great; we’re all looking forward to that. You’ve had a very varied career within the humanities — you’ve been a scholar, a dean at a public university, a president at a liberal arts college, and now you’re the president of the Huntington, which also has multiple parts to it, which I mentioned. This wide-ranging experience gives you a unique perspective on the value and the utility of the humanities disciplines across fields and in different spheres, different public domains. Can you speak to that connection with the humanities, how you see it from the different kinds of points of view that you’ve exercised leadership in the field?

Lawrence (1:49–7:32): Sure, I have spent my whole career being a spokesperson for the humanities and I think there are many similarities across different types of institutions in making a case for the humanities. Having said that in thinking about entering an institution as a leader and moving as you’ve chronicled my moves, I guess I would say that even among the same kind of institution, there are differences in different challenges and so I’ve come to feel just generally about leadership, that we’re all in a sense anthropologists. And forgive me for bringing the social sciences in, before we’ve even really talked about the humanities, but I think when you enter at a particular, we all enter a particular culture at a particular moment and that matters.

So the first thing is I feel like I brought my experiences and cumulative experiences with me, but it’s really important to kind of get the lay of the land and understand where you are and when you enter. So, let me give you some examples in that trajectory. When I came to UCI in 1998, it was a diverse institution. I was attracted by a lot of things including the fact that the humanities had helped establish the reputation of the research programs of UCI, a relatively young institution. Obviously I’m not telling you anything, but so that there was already a great strength in the graduate programs in the humanities, across the humanities, maybe particularly with the reputation of critical theory. And I joked to friends at the time that I was attracted to coming to UCI and being Jacques Derrida’s dean, and that’s just shorthand for the incredible critical and cultural theory and other folks who were here when I came, Gayatri Spivak and we brought Étienne Balibar.

So making the case for the humanities was reaffirming the significance of the humanities at a research institution making the case how important the scholarship was to establishing the reputation and continuing the reputation at UCI and hiring in fact was a period of growth, so we hired about a hundred faculty across that strengthening, building on what I think were strings.

When I got to Sarah Lawrence in 2007, it’s a liberal arts college where what was most important was attracting independent and smart students to an undergraduate humanities education. There were some masters programs and there was also a reputation in creative writing having had Doctorow and Grace Paley, so that was part of the attraction.

When I got there with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head about what we would do with this very excellent school with terrific faculty. I was there for three months and the great recession began and so really at that point, making the case for the humanities was keeping the model viable for a very intensive one-on-one between faculty and students with independent projects emphasized as something that students would get. Making the case it was viable, increasing financial aid so it would be viable and really working on the survival of the institution, which we did.

Huntington, very different. The Huntingtons had a tradition luckily of hiring as presidents of former liberal arts college presidents. I think the combination of my experience at Irvine knowing being in the West in California and it’s such a great institution plus liberal arts helped me to enter into the Huntington at a moment when we were celebrating our hundredth anniversary. So, I was very interested in celebrating the past, but brought in also to think about turning the corner to the next hundred years and definitely humanities and the arts were totally central and are totally central to that.

The one difference was that there are three collections — the library, the art museum and botanical gardens, 130 acres. When I was interviewed, they asked me what my greatest learning curve would be, and I said, there’s no question, botanical gardens. I mean I’m not even a good gardener, let alone a botanist but I guess you can’t expect a president to have had experience in all of those things, so.

Miller (7:32–7:36): I’m sure you have very good aesthetic sensibilities that you bring to it.

Lawrence (7:36–7:52): One would hope, one would hope, and it provided all sorts of opportunities to rethink connections among nature, culture, humanities, and science in really interesting ways.

Miller (7:53–8:32): Well, speaking of connections, you have, you know, you are in an institution where you have obviously both internal research, research towards exhibitions and collection and so forth, as well as external researchers utilizing the facilities of the Huntington as well as a public education mission and yet at the same time it’s a different space and a different mission than academia and I wonder if you could say a little bit about how you see either the connections or the differences, but particularly what’s new in being a president of an institution like the Huntington.

Lawrence (8:32–13:09): Yeah, well, the connections first and then there were a lot of things new, not only the gardens but including the gardens, but we’re both nonprofits. So really, there is a continuity in a mission driven institution. The bottom line is not profit. It’s not a for profit and that makes a big difference just in feeling very comfortable with the work that one is doing with colleagues to fulfill a mission.

And then the centrality of the arts and humanities are very similar. The mission of Huntington has evolved. I think when Henry Huntington, a hundred years ago, made his charter and gave his private treasures, which includes an incredible research library and his private art collection and gardens, I think he saw it as being available to a small group of scholars and really that’s how he thought of research and education which is part of the similarity between higher education and the Huntington.

It is that mission includes both research and education as you pointed out. But I don’t think he ever anticipated the really public nature of what’s become so important at The Huntington and that part of it is something that we’re very much emphasizing. So, we have broadened access for scholars; it’s still very competitive for the fellowships in the library and research, very high quality. About 2,000 fellows come to work in the library. That’s different cause we don’t have tenured faculty or undergraduate students or alumni. So I mean, a difference in the constituents even among the researchers, it’s people from outside, but also in terms of the educational mission, it’s really, really broadened beyond, I mean, Huntington was a visionary in many ways but a lot of things, he didn’t anticipate. So about 25,000 LAUSD schools and school kids, 25,000 students, we have partnerships with for education. So, it’s much more of a civic mission with that and then 800,000 visitors who come. So that’s quite different. UCI and public universities have a wonderful public mission. This is different people coming and a lot of them actually come to see the gardens and are attracted to the gardens of those 800,000 annually so that we’re constantly also thinking of ways to have people visit our public exhibits in the library and the art museum which is totally open.

I think one of the other things that is a similarity with what’s happening in universities in the mission is really thinking about increased diversity. The Huntington is one of the oldest cultural institutions in Southern California. We really need to and aspire to be much more representative in all levels of The Huntington of the diversity of Southern California.

I mention those differences though Tyrus, that really the constituents and the purposes you know, are some of them are similar but also different. When people come to the Huntington, there are no requirements, there are no majors, there are no degrees, so really what we’re offering is something our tagline in our catalog or our book about the Huntington is cultivating curiosity has really, it does depend on the passions of people, the interests they have in all three of those collections without a degree at the end of it.

Miller (13:10–14:14): But, you know, a real challenge, but also a wonderful thing of being able to address everyone from school children to advanced researchers at different levels and in different ways and that’s really extraordinary, but also I imagine very challenging.

I’d like to ask you about some of your scholarly work and I know that, you know, one of the authors that you’ve particularly focused on in your career over multiple books and I imagine quite a bit of teaching and thinking is James Joyce and for those of our audience, you know, who maybe haven’t dipped into Joyce or haven’t had the opportunity to immerse in Joyce, could you tell us a little bit about what attracts you to James Joyce’s work? And what keeps you coming back and maybe even for somebody who isn’t initiated to Joyce, you know, what you would tell them in terms of giving them a little bit of guidance to go ahead and get started and try reading Joyce?

Lawrence (14:15–19:41): So I brought a prop to remind me of, this is a mug, I have no coffee cause I’m in my office and there’s no, we’re not doing that anymore. But this is California Joyce which was a conference that was held in the ’90s before I ever went to Irvine that was hosted by some excellent Joyceans on the faculty at UCI but let me answer your question.

Joyce once said, “I wanna keep the professors busy for a hundred years and that’s the only way to ensure one’s immortality.” And I feel like I’ve done my part, that I’ve lived with Joyce for a very long time. Also the courses that I’ve often taught, I think at UCI too but I would have to check and at Sarah Lawrence or lectures that I’ve given and a book that I’ve published is called Who’s Afraid of James Joyce because I really think people are and to your point about the reputation for difficulty.

How I got interested in it was in college, in a class when I was a junior, and I took an English course on the epic and in this semester we read The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Inferno, Don Quixote and Ulysses, we ended up with Ulysses. For those who haven’t read it, you might know that Ulysses, Joyce’s Ulysses published in 1922 is patterned on Homer’s The Odyssey. So, it was a great course to take, to really discover Joyce. The first time I read Ulysses and I was fascinated by two things: one was how a writer in the 20th century could use such an age old form, literary form, and both borrow from it or steal from it as the case may be and make it something different, make it original.

And so Ulysses as an epic which is usually about the Trojan War and empires and a long duration of in Odysseus’s case coming home after the Trojan War. Joyce created 700 pages on one day in the life of ordinary people. I was fascinated by this comedy of the everyday and it did seem to me that in 700 pages which also recorded the thoughts and associations along with a lot of other things of these characters that you got to know Leopold Bloom better than you knew your friends. So, there was an incredible, what’s attracted me to reading and literature is that kind of sympathetic imagination and the possibility of imagining the lives of others. The second thing that I was struck by though was in the brilliant lectures that were given by the faculty. There was almost a conspiracy of silence. There was an aspect of the book that they never mentioned. And that was the very strange experience of reading Ulysses, turning the pages, and finding completely different styles as you went along in the book. That became my dissertation topic. I decided at some point there was a possibility to actually make a difference in the way that scholars thought about Ulysses since it seems amazing since there, I think there were more dissertations written on Joyce than anybody but Shakespeare at that moment, but it actually, my first book was The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses.

But what’s kept me interested is that I think who James Joyce is and what his novels represent are endlessly hospitable to different thoughts and different critical lenses. So, even my own work has evolved from, in some ways, looking at style and narrative to a much more cultural and political view of what’s entailed with that. But there are, you know, feminist readings and political readings and cultural readings and genetic readings, he’s endlessly interesting, so I guess I could never get enough of him and the other thing is that students, you get wonderful students, terrific students who want to study Joyce and its Ulysses is a great book to do in a seminar. So for all those reasons, it’s been great to do that.

When I got to the Huntington, I also discovered a few manuscripts and postcards and other rare materials and so that was even better and that’s been great.

Miller (19:42–20:05): Even more California Joyce, you know, to pick up on your metaphor of Odyssey, I think that a reader, you know, has to enter Joyce’s world, but gets to wander around and make discoveries and I think people really, you know, it always rewards that travel and that wandering to Joyce’s world.

Lawrence (20:06–20:41): Yeah, absolutely and Finnegans Wake, which was the favorite book of a number of terrific scholars at Irvine including Margot Norris, who was in the English department, English and comp lit when I came. She was someone who concentrated on Finnegans Wake. I’ve taught Finnegans Wake, but I am not an expert and that’s a book that if you get enough people who know enough languages, that’s also a great communal experience to wander around in.

Miller (20:43–21:16): Thank you. I wanna come back to, you mentioned a situation that you faced at Sarah Lawrence with the financial crisis. You’ve had to weather some storms as a leader and, you know, you find yourself again in a difficult set of circumstances to be a leader. Can you offer us any advice about navigating these kinds of crisis situations, tumultuous times, times where it doesn’t seem to be, you know, the most optimistic moment for being in a leadership position?

Lawrence (21:17–25:20): Yeah, I had that at Sarah Lawrence and I think one of the reasons that I was hired by the trustees at the Huntington was that I had been battle tested, but it’s hard to anticipate something like COVID or the financial collapse in 2007. I guess what I’ve learned is that it’s important to try to pull people together. At that moment, at Sarah Lawrence, we really needed to bring the whole faculty together and the board together to think about what I mentioned, the viability of such an intensive faculty student ratio and such an important kind of pedagogy, how could it be maintained and what did we need to do.

So, I think deciding what’s your core values and then really having a discussion of that is very, very crucial. How can you be the best of what you are in a very altered state and the irony now of where we are is that being in the same room with people discussing this, you know, at the very same moment that it was extremely important to be together to discuss how to go from a place that, I’ve spoken about the place at the Huntington, which is such a crucial part of the experience. Had to go from there where we couldn’t be together, where safety dictated that we had to be remote.

I guess I would say resiliency, you know really figuring out we’ve all had to do that, every higher education institution. Now I’m speaking about this crisis, which includes economic and the virus and had to figure out how to do so many more things, in our case how to bring our treasures out of the vault and behind closed doors. Right now, we are open to visitors in botanical and that’s been wonderful. We’re classified as an outdoor museum. So, we’ve been more fortunate than many other institutions in dealing with this crisis.

The second thing is that I think it’s very important if you come into a place, I said to get the lay of the land, it’s also important not to defer those things that are really important for the future. I feel that we were somewhat prepared or we have a lot of work to do, but for the second crisis that we are facing, which is social injustice and how can all institutions, all of our institutions, be more welcoming and inclusive in diverse places and so we were fortunate that very early on, I’d been at the Huntington for two years as you pointed out, we actually had created a pretty extensive diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan with the board and with the staff. And at least, we got a start when on March, whatever it was 16th, you know, everything kinda stopped and we again, we have a long way to go, but I was very glad that in terms of dealing with these twin crises that we had begun to think of how to do that and we had some preparation and now it’s easier to really be acting on that as an institution.

Miller (25:21–25:40): I think that’s another thing that we really share as institutions of, you know, having done substantial work and thinking but also having a long way to go in terms of really being as inclusive as our ideals would dictate.

Lawrence (25:40–25:42): Right, yeah.

Miller (25:43–26:07): I’d like to ask you about you, you deal with philanthropic support, you’ve done that in the past as a university president and as a dean, so for our alumni and donors, who are listening wanting to make a positive impact, based on your experience, in what way do you think that supporting the humanities can make a difference?

Lawrence (26:08–30:32): Well, just the basic case for humanities which I’ve kind of alluded to differences in my roles but is always there is I guess that case is personal, professional, and social, I would say. And I think alumni and funders, that is, I think a very compelling message. Personally, some of the things that I’ve been talking about, about learning how to read and write, also critical thinking and analysis and making an argument, I mean, these are all things that the humanities give to students.

So certainly, that’s incredibly important for educational purposes and for personal enrichment, professional preparation. So now I’m gonna say that there’s a great utility as well as value and I would make the case that both for majors in humanities but also for everybody else, I’m thinking about someone on the medical faculty, when I was at UCI. Someone named Ian Lipkin, who’s a Columbia professor, who’s a microbiologist and virologist now at Columbia; he left UCI. He was a Sarah Lawrence graduate. That’s the reason I’m bringing up there, we’ll tie this together, but always said that his liberal arts education enabled him to tell stories and to communicate and present in science which stood him in very good stead.

So as professional preparation especially when people change jobs and have to be flexible, it’s no longer just the content or learning the skill or the vocation. I think humanities gives incredible portable skills and capabilities forever, but the third aspect is about why society needs this.

What difference it makes and there, I think of what we were talking about before, the sympathetic imagination, but Virginia Woolf actually has had a great phrase in “A Room of One’s Own” and it was that there’s a blind spot the size of a shilling, a little parochial, but the size of the shilling at the back of the head and everybody looks out not seeing that.

So I believe that history and visual culture and literature and ethnic studies and all of the women’s studies, everything that we do in humanities gives the context and a lens on the world that also makes you aware of what you don’t see, of how other people saw it in different moments of history, how other people around the globe at other times and in other spaces and other traditions.

So, it’s crucial, it’s fallible. The disciplines are disciplines, as you were saying, are under scrutiny and they should be about whose stories are told and as a research library and a collections-based institution, the Huntington too.

Who’s stories are we telling? What lenses are we using? What histories and from whose vantage point are we telling those histories? So, I think that humanities lenses are enormously important to society now more than ever. How do you decide what’s true? How can you evaluate evidence? But those are also themselves objects of study and I think that’s an important moment for that.

For all those reasons, the humanities ought to be supported.

Miller (30:33–30:45): Well, you make a very compelling case and I think that there’s lots of opportunities for people to support both nonprofit, cultural institutions or things in the university if that’s their area of interest and connection.

Lawrence (30:46–31:52): Yeah, I should say, I mean, one thing. When Huntington decided to, he was persuaded to give his private treasures to the state of California, you know to the public. Some of those who were encouraging him to do that were faculty at CalTech and the astronomer who was the head of Mount Wilson observatory, George Ellery Hale and so his philanthropy was actually encouraged by scientists who said that this whole area needed an institution in the humanities and the arts that would balance and contribute to the area because CalTech was such a strong science institution and I found that also very compelling, that it’s not always the humanities advocating for itself but it ought to be everybody else advocating for the humanities.

Miller (31:52–31:53): It’s a visionary partnership.

Lawrence (31:53–31:54): Yeah

Miller (31:54–32:05): So, I’d like to end just with one or two questions that are a little bit more personal, but, you know, I’d like to ask, what you’re reading now?

Lawrence (32:06–34:15): Ah, what am I reading — memos? My genre is the memo. No, I mean, as one takes on more administrative responsibility, let me just say, I’m not reading as much as I did, but I read a novel, so novels when I can read it, and it was a big novel called Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and it’s about Koreans in Japan over generations. So, it’s kind of like a Victorian saga novel form of generations. I was an exchange student in Japan through American field service a long, long time ago. So it had particular resonance, but also for what I was talking about, about how traditions, literary traditions, are portable in some ways and it’s important for different groups to transform those, you know, the way I think Joyce transformed the epic. So, I was particularly, someone recommended it to me and it’s more of a, for us transnational way of thinking about groups and cultural contact.

So that’s one thing and I’ve been rereading Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower because the Huntington is fortunate enough to have Octavia Butler’s incredible collection. She was a Pasadena native and became friends with the curator and we’ve done some programming.

So Parable of the Sower which for people who haven’t read it is so eerily and rather terribly prescient about pandemics and social injustice and other things and is also a very exciting novel set in the future daunting, but exciting and excellent novel. So those are two things.

Miller (34:15–43:33): Those are wonderful recommendations and I’ll just say, parenthetically we had with respect to Pachinko, we had the author come to UCI in the Illuminations series and she had a master class with some of our creative writing students and gave a…

Lawrence (34:34–34:40): Oh, I had no idea. That’s why we should, you know, when things are not, was this virtual or this was real?

Miller (34:41–34:48): No, this was back when we were allowed to gather in real space? and she was you know, she was really wonderful.

Lawrence (34:49–35:28): Oh, that’s great. Oh, I had no idea but that’s terrific that UCI did that, and one of the things about UCI and I don’t know if I can mention this, or we’re out of time, but that international, that transnational, that cultural diversity, which I do think UCI is very special about UCI as an institution was something that I feel proud of helping to develop in the years that I was there, but also it was such a strength of the university.

Miller (35:29–36:01): I completely agree and we, you know, we remain committed to sustaining that and building that and continuing to, you know, to renew that. So, appreciate your legacy and we’re carrying that on. Well, I’d like to thank you again for taking your time to share your story and your thoughts with our viewers and I wanna thank our viewers for tuning in. I hope that everyone will join us with coffee cup in hand for our next episode of “Over Coffee.” Thank you, Karen.

Lawrence (36:01–36:03): Thanks a lot, Tyrus; it was a pleasure.

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