The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Scott Harris joins former professor William B. Crawley as co-director of Great Lives Series

4 min read
Crawley stands and talks behind the podium in front of audiences.


Staff Writer

On Feb. 1, UMW’s Great Lives Series welcomed alumnus Scott Harris as co-director. Harris, who is also the executive director of UMW Museums, joins his former professor and advisor, William B. Crawley—the founder of the lecture series and professor emeritus of history and American studies—in this role. 

Leading up to his co-directorship Harris spoke with Crawley about his retirement plans and the future of the Great Lives series. 

“For the last couple of years, we’ve talked about how he is looking ahead to when he will return to do his second retirement—he retired from teaching [and] he’s been doing this for 20 years,” said Harris. “And so as a way of seeing if I might be able to help with that in the future, we hit upon this idea of me being a co-director with him this year.” 

Harris’ co-director position involves working with administrators, meeting with authors so they feel prepared for their presentations and talking to sponsors and donors to ensure their support in the future. 

“I’m helping right now with the administration of this year’s lectures, which will go until March,” he said. “So, in many ways, all the things that Dr. Crawley has done as director by himself for 20 years.” 

But this isn’t Harris’ first rodeo in a leadership position. In 2011, Harris became the director of the James Monroe Museum, and in 2018—when the James Monroe Museum combined with Gary Melchers Home and Studio—he became the executive director of museums. His experience, in addition to his familiarity with the university and the Fredericksburg area, set him up for success, even as he learns the ropes with Crawley’s assistance.

He said, “[Crawley] almost might say I’m an apprentice, and I can learn more and use my contacts, my experience—I can help more, and we just let that process unfold.”

The series, which began in 2004 as an academic course in the Department of History and American Studies, hosts lectures to contribute to student’s educational experiences and careers at UMW. In the beginning, the speakers were UMW professors, but due to the popularity of the series, they started to host well-known speakers, such as Johnette Howard, a Pulitzer-nominated columnist who collaborated with Billie Jean King on her biography. 

The course was taught in Monroe Hall, but as the lecture series evolved, it moved to Dodd Auditorium, which can seat over 1,200 audience members. The lectures seek to cover a wide spectrum of topics to attract a diverse and interested crowd, and as a common point, these speakers visit every week to deliver a lecture about a relevant historical figure from an array of fields. 

“What we try to do is construct it so that there are topics that have wide appeal,” said Crawley. “And I think Scott has this ability to see the big picture and to recognize figures who might be good topics across the watch spectrum.”

Furthermore, with an endowment from John Chappell in honor of his late wife, Crawley was able to invite “bestselling biographers who provide illuminating insight into the lives of the world’s most prominent personalities,” according to UMW Giving

“Almost every field has some outstanding figure person, so we decided to focus on biography,” said Crawley. “That’s something a lot of people still I think don’t understand … that it’s really about individuals.”

He continued, “When you study the individual, you study times—the situation and the conditions in which they lived and so forth.”

In addition to offering open lectures to the public, the Great Lives Series also provides an opportunity for UMW’s Honor Program students to complete their co-curricular reflections—assignments that Honors scholars must complete once a semester to remain in good academic standing with the Program.

“The Honors Program really emphasizes going beyond the classroom and engaging with the community,” said Nick Remish, a senior economics and political science major. “And since Fredericksburg is such a historical place, it’s really an awesome foundation to learn about George Washington and other great leaders.”

Remish, who attended the Feb. 6 lecture about George Washington, spoke about Harris’ new role as co-director. 

“I think it’s a great addition,” he said. “He really helped organize everything and based on the turnout, he’s clearly doing a great job.”

The purpose of the lectures is to provide additional avenues for academic learning that take place outside of the classroom. While some of the lectures educate audience members about literary figures they may not be familiar with, they can also make students consider what they learned before college in a different light. 

Yonatan Asfaw, a junior computer science major who also attended the talk about George Washington, commented on how his impressions of the Founding Father altered after attending the lecture. 

“I was really surprised by George Washington’s acceptance of slavery,” said Asfaw. “I always thought of him as a person who loved freedom. Based on what I learned when I was young, this made sense of course.”

The popular lecture series returned on Jan. 16 with a reading on Lewis and Clark and will end on March 28 with their final lecture about Edgar Allan Poe.