Following a legacy

Associate Provost Ursula Payne describes her influences and journey through education

Published by Hayden Schultz, Date: February 15, 2024
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Photo by Katie

For Associate Provost Ursula Payne, it starts with her roots.  

Due to the brutalities of slavery, many Black Americans struggle to find documentation of their ancestors.

Against the odds, SRU Associate Provost Ursula Payne traced her mother’s lineage back to a specific plantation in Charlotte, N.C..

“On my mother’s side of my family, and my dad’s side too, I am probably third generation college educated,” she said. “Education has been a part of the evolution of my family, from the time we were enslaved African Americans.” 

Payne’s involvement with higher education includes over three decades of experience in teaching and leadership roles, alongside a lengthy dance discography, following her appointment as associate provost of SRU. 

Familial connections

With both parents teaching in the New Castle School District, Payne grew up in a household of educators. As a child, she was inspired by her mother, Octavia, with her love for dance and her father, James, and his passion for sports.

At four years old she started dance studio training, and sometime before then, started bouncing a basketball. Not busy enough, she said her parents also introduced her to the clarinet. 

“I would go to practices with my father when he was coaching and he would put me on the side and I would be bouncing balls and all kinds of things,” she said. “I always grew up with my arts and athletics intertwined.” 

Payne’s specialties were basketball, long jump and triple jump, the latter of which she earned the title of state champion. These accomplishments landed her on the Lawrence County Sports Hall of Fame in 2010, following her father, James, in 1999 and uncle, Lenny, in 2005. 

Another influence of Payne was her brother, Lanxter Derr Webber Payne, who was born with cerebral palsy-spastic quadriplegia. 

“We were in the world together for a short amount of time, but I feel like his presence was very inspirational to take advantage of the things I was able to do,” the associate provost said.  

Payne said taking her talents to a university was a given. The hard part was deciding where she would end up. 

“Every parent and child, they always have the conversation about where they want to go,” she said. 

Payne was recruited to run track at Stanford, West Point and SRU, but also wanted to attend Spelman, a historically Black women’s university. During the recruitment process, Payne was offered a Board of Governors Scholarship to SRU. 

“I had all these dreams of where I wanted to land and then, my mom and dad, when I got that Board of Governors Scholarship, said ‘That’s where you’re going,’” Payne said, laughing over the memory. 

Payne said after both of her parents were educated at historically Black universities, they wanted their daughter to have a different experience. 

“I ended up personally landing on Slippery Rock because it allowed me to do athletics and dance. You usually do not get to find that pairing.” she said, comparing the situation to larger schools such as Stanford or West Point. 

After settling in to SRU, Payne went through several majors before studying dance. 

“I wouldn’t have been able to see a future [in dance] had I not come to Slippery Rock and had they not had a major program,” the associate provost said. “You get to understand what all is out there in the field for the arts that goes beyond performing.” 

Payne continued her education at The University of Ohio State for her graduate work. She studied Laban Movement Analysis and received a Master of Fine Arts in 1995. Payne also earned a certificate from the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in New York City two years after. 

“I am the kind of student where I need to be involved. There has to be some type of emotional connection to what it is I am learning as well as a curiosity there and explore,” she said, regarding her choice of major. “If a program can capture that and have that available to students, I think that’s the best thing.” 

Payne said active and engaged learning with faculty, specifically at SRU, was transformative towards her life experiences, saying staff is “the soul of the institution.” 

Through the decades at SRU

The associate provost also said hands on and practical applications of a university the size of SRU is ideal for nurturing the student-faculty relationship, something she aims to further in her new position. 

“So much of what I did as a professional artist fed directly into the classroom,” Payne said. “That’s something that makes the collegiate environment unique.” 

After she performed professionally alongside fellow professional dancer Tiffany Mills, Payne returned to SRU as a temporary instructor. Over the semester, she was offered a tenure track towards becoming a professor.

Throughout the two decades to follow, she climbed to the dance department chair, director of the Frederick Douglass Institute and SRU’s diversity liaison officer to PASSHE, ultimately teaching for 27 years in SRU’s dance department. 

After completing Payne’s third term as the dance department chair and fifth year as the director of the Frederick Douglass Institute, she thought applying for the interim associate provost position was the next logical step. 

“Once I got into the role, I started learning about the institution from a different vantage point, which was very exciting to me,” she said. “I found that I really do enjoy doing work at this level.” 

Following the appointment of Michael Zieg’s to interim provost, replacing Abbey Zink, an internal job search was conducted for interim associate provost. Payne applied for Zieg’s previous position in June 2022 and went through two interviews with the search committee and one with Provost Zieg.

After Payne was selected for the interim associate provost position, she said the short-term placement allowed her to see if upper management was an area of interest. 

“Slippery Rock was in a precarious place,” she said. “We need seasoned faculty members to step into these leadership roles in times of flux.” 

Payne was permanently appointed to associate provost by President Karen Riley during the university Spring Town Hall on Jan. 30, after serving in the interim position for nearly two years.  

Being in the role permanently is exciting to Payne, where she said her prior experience at SRU, performances across 30 countries and leadership experience, were reasons she felt qualified to apply for the role. 

“It’s different, it’s definitely different,” the associate provost said. “One of the main things I miss is the interaction with students and the kind of faculty interactions you have.” 

Reflecting on her decades long history at SRU, Payne said her ability to occupy another leadership role is meaningful to her as a Black woman, being the first in her family to graduate from, teach and help lead at predominantly white university. 

“I think of my father, who’s since passed on, and my mother who is still present in the world,” she said, “It is continuing the legacy they set up for me.”  

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