Vice Provost Jan Murdoch strives to make Clemson University a place where undergraduate students can flourish
By Alex Urban
Learning to play a musical instrument can humble anyone, especially someone taking on the challenge later in life. For Jan Murdoch, vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies, learning the mandolin is an analogy for the struggles and triumphs of undergraduate students at Clemson University.
As an educator and administrator at Clemson for more than 20 years, Murdoch has seen students struggle to learn new things and persevere to overcome obstacles. Murdoch came to Clemson in 1984 as an assistant professor of psychology, and she worked her way up to full professor in the 13 years that followed.
“For me, as a teacher, taking on a difficult learning process really helped me get in touch with students,” Murdoch said.
In fact, she once brought her mandolin to class to show students that even teachers struggle to learn things on a daily basis.
It was during these early years as a Clemson professor that Murdoch realized her passion in life was assisting undergraduate students.
Murdoch earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Wake Forest. She then went to Vanderbilt to obtain her doctorate, with a residency at Brown afterward. Throughout her schooling, Murdoch figured she would work in the field of substance abuse psychology, her area of emphasis.
But once she finished school, Murdoch realized that she didn’t want to leave the academic world, so she looked for a university position.
“My passion is undergraduate students,” she said. “I wanted to work at a place that was all about undergraduates, and that is what attracted me to Clemson.”
Murdoch taught and worked in psychological services at Redfern Health Center for 13 years before becoming the associate dean in the College of Business and Behavioral Science. When the vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies position opened up six years ago, she didn’t think twice before applying.
“Part of me felt that if I had regrets about who got the job, I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t apply,” she said.
When Murdoch was selected, she hit the ground running with the goal of making Clemson University a place where undergraduate students get the best education possible.
And as a person who thinks about undergraduates all the time, Murdoch wants them to have the best experience possible. She is devoted to President Jim Barker’s Top-20 goals and wants to keep the University’s focus on undergraduate students.
Murdoch has been instrumental in this effort by maintaining fair academic policies and implementing programs such as Creative Inquiry, where undergraduate students work on multi-semester projects with professors.
“Creative Inquiry and other programs offer experiences and opportunities to students that help them see that they can accomplish more than they realize,” she said.
Murdoch is also the chair of the committee that selects the summer reading book for incoming freshmen each year. Selecting the book is a difficult task, as the goal is to pick a book that students will read and that faculty members will want to talk about with freshman students. She realizes that the books can’t be too long and the topic must be broadly engaging. The committee is also bound to selecting a book that has a living author, as the format of the summer reading program includes an address by the author to the freshman class during the first week of fall semester.
“We take suggestions from anyone who sends them and talk about all the options,” she said.
Murdoch is right at home in the Clemson community, where she lives with her husband, Larry, a professor of environmental engineering and earth science. You might spot her around town, driving her orange convertible or walking her two dogs, Delta, a black standard poodle, and Winston, a brown poodle pointer.
Learning to play a musical instrument — or to walk two large dogs — can be hard, just as learning can be difficult for students at times. But through cooperation and hard work, Murdoch learned how to play the mandolin and has focused her career on making Clemson a university where undergraduates can flourish.