“From the ground up:” A former adjunct professor becomes Belmont’s provost
In the office on the second floor of Barbara Massey Hall, there’s a panoramic window overlooking the north campus. From the vantage point of somebody walking in the door, the brick residence halls and ornate gazebos look promotional-packet-perfect.
But from another angle behind the desk, where all the work gets done, the cranes, bulldozers and unfinished buildings are a reminder of Belmont’s constant growth. The rumbles of the machines form an odd symphony with the cheerful chimes of the Bell Tower in the distance.
Sitting comfortably in a black and gold striped armchair, Belmont’s new provost sips a latte and looks out over the campus she’s been a part of for three decades.
When Marcia McDonald arrived at Belmont in 1980, she had just earned her doctorate at Vanderbilt University and was disillusioned with the students she’d been teaching there as a graduate assistant.
“They had a sense that their lives were going to be OK. College wasn’t going to make all that much of a difference,” McDonald said. “I got over here and realized that I was teaching students for whom college would make a significant difference.”
This was appealing to McDonald, who grew up learning to fight for change from her grandparents, prominent advocates of the civil rights movement in their small community of DeLand, Fla.
When the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, McDonald’s grandmother realized her colleagues on DeLand’s school board weren’t in a hurry to put the new law into practice.
“She said, ‘This is the law of the land, and Volusia County Schools need to start desegregating, need to start integrating.’ She was pushed off the school board and they had a cross burned in their front yard,” McDonald said.
“Very early on, I got the strong message that we really needed some changes in the county,” she said.
Although McDonald admired her grandparents’ courage, she sometimes needed a break from the politics and fights of the real world. She escaped to the fictional world of the Nancy Drew mysteries.
“She would go down the steps in the haunted houses and that sort of thing, so that was, I think, fun to see sort of a brave, independent problem solver in Nancy Drew,” she said.
Nancy’s escapades made McDonald see a larger world outside her town. And as she grew up, she realized she didn’t like what she saw.
In the early 70s, the time of the Kent State Massacre and the Vietnam War, she worked on an English major at Stetson University. “There was always something to talk about,” McDonald said.
She completed her undergraduate degree in just three years. In 1974, she started her doctorate at Vanderbilt, and she’s called Nashville home ever since.
Though her campus was only a few blocks away, McDonald hadn’t heard much about Belmont beyond its women’s basketball team regularly defeating the Vanderbilt Commodores. But as a struggling grad student looking to earn some extra money, she jumped at the opportunity to become Belmont’s new adjunct English teacher.
She scheduled an interview with Jan Wilson, an engaging, cultured woman who was the chair of the English department.
“Her first question was, ‘What is the purpose of a Christian university?’ and I remember thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I thought I was supposed to talk about English,’” said McDonald.
Wilson’s challenge caught her off guard, and suddenly Belmont seemed like an exciting place to start her career.
She loved the classes she taught and the way the professors genuinely cared about their students. In the close-knit English department, McDonald became friends with John Paine, another young professor who started the same year.
“Even back then, she had the same faculty that I admire in her so much today, the ability to listen to people – and just listen,” said Paine.
When Wilson retired several years later, Paine asked McDonald to share the chair position with him on a rotating basis, giving McDonald her first taste of an administrative role.
McDonald said she blames Paine for her switch to “the dark side,” and he joked he’s more than happy to take a little bit of the credit for her success.
Since then, McDonald has served in both teaching and administrative positions. Though Paine hasn’t seen his old friend as much as he’d like since she left the department, he’s proud of how she’s gotten where she is. “She fully understands Belmont from the ground up,” he said.
Over the past 30 years, McDonald has seen the university nearly triple in size, yet she said she’s stayed with Belmont because, at its core, it’s always been the same.
“Our student population has changed; our faculty has changed, but that commitment to be a place where students can learn and where the student learning is what we care most about, that is important,” she said. “In a day and age where universities and colleges have to be very thoughtful about what they do in order to stay viable, we have found a way to establish our footprint so that we’ll be here a long time.”
And in 2009, when the university needed a new provost to walk it through the next steps of growth, the selection committee realized they already had the perfect candidate on campus—a brave, independent problem solver who had a window into the heart and soul of Belmont long before she ever took the job.