By Dan Kirkpatrick, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research
The Office of the Vice President for Research has selected Matthew Sivils to serve as the new director of the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities (CEAH) at Iowa State University.
Sivils, an LAS (Liberal Arts and Sciences) Dean’s Professor in the Department of English, began this three-year appointment on July 1, 2022. He follows Carlton Basmajian, who served in this role since 2017.
“I want to personally thank Dr. Basmajian for his many valuable leadership contributions to the arts and humanities, CEAH, and Iowa State University as a whole over the past five years,” said Peter Dorhout, Vice President for Research. “I’m also delighted to welcome Dr. Sivils into his new role as CEAH director. He has a clear understanding of the important role the arts and humanities play in Iowa State’s land-grant mission. I have no doubt that he will be a tireless advocate for our colleagues and constituents and an eager collaborator across the entire campus community.”
Sivils joined the Iowa State faculty in 2008 after successfully completing his M.A. and Ph.D. in English at Oklahoma State University and then spending two years in a tenure-line position at a small liberal arts college.
“I’m a firm believer in the land-grant mission, and the vital role the arts and humanities play in the many positive contributions these institutions make to society. So, I was excited to have an early-career opportunity to join the faculty at Iowa State, which I have long considered one of the nation’s premier land-grant universities,” Sivils said. “I’ve valued my experience at Iowa State and with the CEAH. Moving forward, I’m excited to explore strategies for diversifying support for the center and enhancing its overall presence on campus.”
In his time at Iowa State, Sivils has gained valuable leadership and administrative experience by participating in the Emerging Leaders Academy and serving as the Associate Chair for Faculty Development and Associate Chair for Operations in the Department of English. He has twice received Iowa State’s Exemplary Faculty Mentor Award, a recognition of his exceptional mentoring work.
In the Q&A that follows, Sivils shares insights into his background his perspectives on the arts and humanities at Iowa State and his priorities for CEAH moving forward.
Q: Why were you interested in becoming the new director for the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities at Iowa State?
A: Perhaps what most excites me about serving as the Director of the CEAH is the prospect of finding new ways to expand the Center’s reach and impact, on campus and beyond. It’s a great honor to be at the helm of such an important part of ISU’s mission.
Q: Since coming to Iowa State in 2008, you have served on various committees in your college and in administrative roles within your department. How have those experiences prepared you for the director role with CEAH?
A: Serving on committees and in various administrative roles has given me valuable experience in the management of academic programs and in the importance of working closely with faculty, students, and staff. When I was in graduate school, the behind-the-scenes work of academe was largely a mystery to me. Once I began to serve on committees and in leadership positions, I realized I needed to become a student of the leadership styles of others, and I bring the fruits of that approach to this position.
Q: You’ve had a lot of exposure to, and interaction with, CEAH in your 14 years at Iowa State. What impact has the center had on you and your scholarly works in your time at the university?
A: I came to Iowa State University in 2008 after spending two years in a tenure-line position at a small liberal arts college. That college was a fine school, but I’m the product of—and a great advocate for—a land-grant education, so I was eager to return to my roots. I was also serious about my literary scholarship, so that January as the snow fell during my campus interview, I asked my future colleagues about the kinds of research support ISU could offer an ambitious humanist such as myself. And they all said I should check out the CEAH.
To me, the CEAH embodied Iowa State’s commitment to the humanities in all its forms. A month later I made the choice to come to ISU, and by the following year I was the proud recipient of a CEAH Fellowship. That support sparked research that would lead to multiple articles, a couple of books, and so much other success. Now, so many years after my first CEAH grant, I’m eager to do my part to grow the center’s mission to offer transformative support to our faculty.
Q: You have a bachelor’s degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Biology and a Master’s and Ph.D. in English from Oklahoma State University. You literally have one foot in STEM and one in the arts and humanities and nearly 20 years association with land-grant universities. From your perspective, why are the arts and humanities so important in helping Iowa State fulfill its land-grant mission?
A: I believe most people are intellectually eclectic. Many a humanist enjoys scientific inquiry, and many a scientist adores the arts. I think we’re all familiar with the image of Albert Einstein with his violin or with other famous polymaths such as Anna Atkins, Maria Sibylla Merian, and of course, Leonardo Da Vinci. Land-grant universities, of which ISU is the premier example, are idea generators, and rarely do they shine as bright as when they employ the intellectual power of the arts and humanities.
Q: How do you see the arts and humanities at Iowa State supporting the broader community beyond the campus?
A: The work of our faculty in the arts, humanities, and design has a positive impact well beyond our campus community. The CEAH—as the hub of arts and humanities scholarship at ISU—is well positioned to facilitate collaborations between our faculty and the broader community. For example, just within our immediate area, I can see the CEAH helping foster collaborations with the Des Moines Art Museum, the Des Moines Metropolitan Opera, the Salisbury House, and other local arts and humanities entities. Indeed, one of my goals is to help our faculty seek out new collaborations and form new relationships with those in the broader community.
Q: What would you consider to be your top priorities in your first year?
A: My main priorities concern building relationships with our faculty to better learn how the Center can help them with their scholarship. Along the way, I want to make sure that the Center continues to offer the level of support it has in previous years (e.g., funding, programming, and networking) while also looking for opportunities to expand the Center’s reach through fund-raising efforts, to pursue new programming initiatives, and to enhance the center’s overall presence on campus. I’m rolling up my sleeves.
Q: What ideas do you have to bolster both the programming and funding offered by CEAH?
A: The CEAH has made great strides in offering programming related to the digital humanities, and I hope to build upon these earlier initiatives by looking at ways to create grants that specifically support digital humanities projects. Additionally, I’d like to see the Center host a digital humanities symposium that would invite a group of accomplished digital humanists, designers, and artists from other institutions to come to Iowa State to share their work and to engage in discussions with our faculty about current challenges and opportunities.
I’m likewise eager to find ways to fund and promote innovative projects related to issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The arts and humanities offer particularly exciting opportunities for examining and giving voice to a range of questions, lessons, and concerns related to DEI issues. Some of our faculty are already engaged in projects related to DEI, and I’m eager to see what the Center can do to help grow this trend.
Q: What role do the arts and humanities play in shaping and executing interdisciplinary research initiatives that target grand challenges, and how can the Center help bring researchers and scholars together to work on such initiatives?
A: Grand challenges require grand approaches that involve the collaborative efforts of specialists from a diversity of disciplines across the university. Specialists from the arts, design, and humanities are particularly suited to address problems that range beyond the empirical terrain, asking questions that account for values, relationships, and concerns from a diversity of cultural, aesthetic, qualitative, and, simply put, human, perspectives. One way the Center can facilitate such collaboration is by encouraging interdisciplinary symposia, faculty work groups, and grant opportunities that invite scholars from across disciplines to team up. Great things happen when brilliant people from different disciplines work together.
Q: Please complete this sentence: “At the end of my three-year appointment, I would consider my term as CEAH director a success if . . .”
A: the Center has grown into ISU’s front door for the arts, design, and the humanities, offering support and programming that fuels impactful scholarship, ranging from compelling individual work within the disciplines to innovative interdisciplinary pursuits. To make this happen, the Center needs to cultivate relationships between faculty, campus stakeholders, and communities in Iowa and beyond. If I can help the CEAH achieve this goal, I’ll consider my time as director a success.
Q: On a personal level, what is the one thing people might be most surprised to learn about you?
A: One thing people might be surprised to learn about me is that I’m an avid player of tabletop games, and one of my favorites is Lisboa, in which players compete to rebuild the city of Lisbon following its destruction by the great earthquake of 1755. I find such analog games a nice way to take a break after a long day of looking at screens.