Published November 1, 2012
Since being named SUNY Fredonia’s first female president, UB alumna Virginia Horvath has made it her business to tout the college’s strengths as a center of undergraduate learning, fortify town-gown ties, and inspire campus and community alike with her warmth and enthusiasm.
In July, during her first week as leader of this liberal arts college of 5,500 mostly undergraduate students, she made the rounds of Fredonia’s business district, stopping in at every open shop to pass out Fredonia State pens and her business cards, surprising many business owners in this proverbial college town.
“They must have wondered at first who is this person coming in to my beauty shop or tattoo parlor or insurance agency?” Horvath remembers. “But when I introduced myself, they said, ‘We’ve not had officials from the college just walk in’ and they appreciated my visit.”
Today her days are filled implementing Fredonia’s five-year strategic plan developed while she was the college’s provost before succeeding Dennis Hefner, who retired after 16 year as Fredonia’s president. She’s also occupied with searches for a new provost, as well as for a vice president for finance and management. And she’s busy overseeing new campus construction. A new Science Center is set to open in 2014 and an addition is planned for Rockefeller Arts Center to provide needed teaching space, among other capital projects. A new fitness center opens this spring as well.
Since arriving at Fredonia in 2005 as vice president for academic affairs, Horvath has taught at least one class a year and the presidency hasn’t altered this pattern. This semester, she’s teaching an honors humanities class that explores humor from a multidisciplinary perspective. She keeps up on technology, too, and her obvious know-how with software and tools helps her engage her students intellectually. “I think it’s helped me understand this generation of students,” she says.
A Western New York native, Horvath says she has fond memories of her years as a UB English major and credits several UB professors with a profound influence on her life and career. A scholar of medieval literature who spent 20 years as an English professor and administrator at Kent State, Horvath was inspired by the teachings of the late F. Anne Payne, UB professor of English emerita. Payne taught an Old English course that Horvath relished.
“I was fascinated by her approach to language instruction,” Horvath says. “She taught us how to study another language, in addition to showing me what was appealing about the medieval period and what was wonderful about Old English literature. And I still have my books from that course.”
In fact, Horvath has kept her books from all her courses at UB, noting that she “proudly unpacked them at the President’s House and placed them on a special shelf.” This customized rack also includes texts from a course Horvath took with Carl Dennis, emeritus professor of English, UB artist-in-residence and winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
“The course that I took with him in the spring of 1977 was ‘Literature and the History of Ideas.’ It’s a testament to the positive impact of these professors on me that it’s decades later and I still remember the course title and our readings of important texts.”
After graduating from UB in 1978, Horvath went on to master’s studies at Kent State, then earned a doctorate in medieval British literature, with a specialty in medieval drama, also at Kent State. As a first-generation college student who worked to pay her way at UB, Horvath says she can identify with the struggles and concerns of today’s undergraduates. In her view, career paths are overemphasized at the expense of meaningful academic and life experience that will eventually translate to the right job or career field.
“I think there’s a certain pressure on this generation—and the media don’t help in a lot of ways—because they give such a dismal picture of job outlooks and there’s so much pressure for narrow approaches to study. We expect people when they’re juniors in high school to identify a field and then to work in a dogged way toward achieving that goal. I think a return to a sense of knowledge for its own sake, and with the trust that if you do all you can to become a smart person, you will find your way.
“But from going to open houses, and talking to high school students and their families, I know the emphasis has been on economics and trends, and not on ‘What are your gifts and what are you curious about.’ I am glad to be part of the proud liberal arts tradition at Fredonia that has provided such a solid basis for careers in many, many fields.”
Horvath finds time to pursue her interests in poetry and photography, and also is researching the life and work of Fredonia novelist Grace S. Richmond (1866-1959), some of whose papers are owned by the college’s archives, for a book-length study. She also has a busy family life. Her husband, Brooke Horvath, is professor of English at Kent State and a noted literary scholar and poet. He commutes most weekends to Fredonia and the couple has four grown daughters in their blended family.