The following profile, by Maggie Gunn, appeared originally in the January 19 Longhorn Life supplement of the Daily Texan.
Paul Woodruff thought he was being exiled to the desert when he moved away from his life at the northeastern Ivy Leagues to teach philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin in 1974. Now, 36 years later and serving as the inaugural dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies, he remembered fondly that it only took him a year to realize he was lucky to have earned a teaching position in the Texas hill country.
“Right from the start I encountered brilliant students at UT,” Woodruff said.
Though Woodruff said he hangs his hat in the philosophy department, the more difficult question is which one of his hats he hangs there. Woodruff’s accomplishments are vast in his work as educator and administrator, writer and translator, rower and runner, furniture maker and philosopher, and father, husband and grandfather.
He majored in classics at Princeton University before earning a Marshall scholarship and continued his studies in Oxford for three years. In 1968 he returned to serve in Vietnam for a year and, after returning home safely in 1969, completed his doctorate in philosophy at Princeton before moving to Austin with his then-fiance, Lucia.
He chaired UT’s philosophy department from 1988 to 1991 before directing the Plan II Honors Program for 15 transformative years. The landmark Senior Thesis Symposium, the completion of the Joynes Reading Room and the establishment of the Voltaire’s Coffee Summer Reading list were all completed under his guidance.
But Woodruff’s spirit and wisdom have in no way been limited to Plan II. Serving as the first dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies since its inception in 2006, Woodruff’s high regard for undergraduates is evident in the school’s focus and provision for skilled advising for students still choosing a major, interdisciplinary learning programs and the redeployment of quality faculty to incoming freshmen.
Woodruff said the School of Undergraduate Studies is helping students answer the tough question: “What are you going to do with the rest of the your life?” Through successful initiatives such as the FIG Program, the Bridging Disciplines Program and signature courses, which will be offered to all incoming freshmen next year, Woodruff has helped make decisions regarding their futures easier for students.
Woodruff said his “wonderful” interactions with students, which he considers UT’s greatest assets, provide much of his inspiration.
Stemming from his time in Vietnam, Woodruff wanted a career that impacted the way people live. “The books that I teach and the books that I write are on things that I think are important,” he said.
Woodruff has published a wide variety of plays, librettos, philosophical treatises and translations of Greek poetry and plays. He recently received an e-mail from a teacher at the State Police Academy of Colorado inquiring about the use of his book, “The Necessity of Theatre,” as a teaching tool on the importance of empathy in training the state’s police.
“How many philosophers can say they’ve changed the way a police commissioner teaches his class?” Woodruff asked. “To be able to write a book that meets scholarly requirements and changes the way a police academy teaches is quite an achievement.”
Personal accolades aside, Woodruff prefers talking about the great thoughts of others—students and philosophers. A lover of Shakespeare and Keats, he is an advocate for a thoughtful life, well-spent and well-written. Woodruff is a firm believer that every student needs to engage in philosophy because it challenges them to think clearly and to articulate ideas.
“The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being,” is one of Woodruff’s favorite quotes by Socrates. “I think any course that challenges a student to think about her beliefs in the way a philosophy course does is enriched by the experience,” Woodruff said.
Through his work as teacher and dean of Undergraduate Studies, Woodruff hopes to enable more students to examine their lives as Longhorns who have the capacity to change the world.