Leading like a Blue Hen
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson May 25, 2022
Retiring Provost Robin Morgan reflects on her 37-year UD career
Successful people often find themselves at a professional crossroads: Me or us? Are my victories enough, they ask, or would I be more fulfilled uplifting others?
The answer to this question distinguishes leaders like Robin Morgan. On the cusp of retirement after several decades in the highest levels of the University of Delaware’s administration, the provost says, simply, “I don’t want a legacy for myself.”
She is thinking about what to tell the biology department she once chaired, the people she will speak to in a few short hours, when her voice begins to crack.
“I’m going to tell them that all the recent successes they’ve had are at levels and heights I could have never imagined,” Morgan says. “You don’t do that as an individual. Other people do that.”
Which is not to say that Morgan hasn’t found enormous individual research success. Shortly after arriving at UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) in 1985, she began working to make recombinant vaccines, manipulating genomes to create vaccines that would prevent a herpesvirus induced T-cell lymphoma in chickens, one of the most serious poultry diseases at the time.
Morgan knew almost nothing about chickens. Or agriculture. Or land-grant universities. But a molecular biologist by trade, she was “just arrogant enough to think, ‘I’ll figure it out,’” and indeed, she did.
“I was slow to be successful,” Morgan admits. But in time, she made some of the first successful herpesvirus of turkeys (HVT) recombinant vaccines, which could protect against the dangerously common Marek’s and Newcastle diseases that threatened commercial poultry.
“I was working on a virus I loved with great students and the support of colleagues and industry,” Morgan says. “It taught me the value of collaboration. Of never quitting, taking risks and doing something interesting.”
Her successes would be well-funded, and the CANR dean at the time would eventually ask Morgan to help colleagues build their own research profiles by becoming associate dean for research. She accepted the position, and later, the interim dean role.
When Morgan assumed the permanent dean position in 2002, the first woman in UD history to lead that college, she learned the competing demands of work and home. “I can go on and on about the fun of pulling a Barbie doll out of your briefcase,” she says with a shrug. “It just happens.”
Morgan also learned the most powerful tool of administrative success. “It’s not about what you know how to do,” Morgan says. “It’s about knowing what you don’t do well. Any leader of any organization needs to understand their weaknesses. Don’t beat yourself up over them, but make sure to compensate for them by having people around you who do what you can’t do exceedingly well.”
Morgan would do just that. She would also listen to her critics, even when they were uncivil.
“I’ve had things said to or about me that I thought were unfair, but rather than dismiss something, I’ve always tried to figure out where it was coming from so that I could understand it better,” Morgan says.
This inclusive approach may stem from her unlikely circumstances. “I was a very different ag dean,” Morgan says. “I was a molecular biologist, I did not have a background in ag, and I was a woman. But some of my worst critics became my strongest supporters. That’s important.”
After serving 10 years as CANR dean from 2002-2012, Morgan chaired the Department of Biological Sciences (again, the first woman to hold the position), ultimately leaving the role in 2017 to become UD’s 11th provost (again, the first woman to do so on a permanent basis).
Morgan says she rarely thinks about these gender-defying breakthroughs, though its importance is not lost on her adult daughter and son. “You want your children to be happy and to love you, but it doesn’t occur to you that they’d be proud of you, too,” she says. “It’s not something you ever ask for as a parent.”
Their pride is likely shared by all at UD who have worked with this molecular biologist-turned-unlikely-dean-turned-chief academic officer. Indeed, provost seems a fitting final role for someone who has found great professional joy in investing in faculty talent and strengthening academic programs.
And when recruiting professors to UD, Morgan shares her story. “I tell them one person can make a difference,” she says. “One young scientist can come here and make a difference. There are many similar stories here at UD. I’m not unique.”