Nearly two decades of Dr. Tim Edwards’ distinguished career have been spent at UWA.

Provost is proud of the university’s numerous academic additions during his tenure

Story: Phillip Tutor | Photo: Betsy Compton

When Birmingham’s weather warmed and school reached its hiatus, Dr. Tim Edwards spent his teenage summers toiling alongside his father, a brick mason with a meticulous attention to detail so prevalent among skilled artisans.

His dad wielded trowels and scooped mortar and kept straight lines. Be patient, he told his son; competence develops slowly. But speed mattered because he got paid by the brick, not the hour. Young Tim Edwards, sweating in the Alabama heat, tried to keep up.

“I could never get the hang of laying brick,” he said. “I’d rather teach Mark Twain than lay brick.”

That preference worked well for Edwards, who rose through a distinguished academic career as an English professor at several institutions to become provost at the University of West Alabama. His retirement this summer will mark the end of nearly two decades on campus in Livingston. In remarks at this spring’s commencement exercises, UWA President Dr. Ken Tucker announced that Edwards has been awarded the honor of provost emeritus. 

“I would like to take a moment of personal privilege to thank him for the leadership, support, friendship and loyalty that he has shown to me and to our entire university family,” Tucker said at commencement. “Dr. Edwards, I will certainly miss your positive attitude and sense of humor.”

Edwards smiles when admitting he was caught off guard — not by the award, but by the public announcement at what is normally a scripted ceremony.

“I was very excited and honored that I will be the first provost emeritus, as far as we know, in the history of this university,” he said. “That was not expected, but it was really nice.”

UWA’s place in Edwards’ career

Though he’s taught at other universities, Edwards has enjoyed a lengthy relationship with UWA that spans nearly two decades and a variety of ascending roles. The assignments came in rapid-fire succession: associate professor specializing in American literature; chair of the Department of Languages and Literature; associate dean — and later, dean — of the College of Liberal Arts; interim provost; and, in 2015, provost and vice president of academic affairs.

That accounting, though, is incomplete.

In 1999, Edwards earned his doctorate from the University of Tennessee while teaching at Georgia Southwestern State University and accepted a non-tenure-track position at UWA. He and his wife, Kathy, had a 6-year-old daughter, Emily. They lived just across the state line in Meridian, Mississippi. But his first stay in Livingston lasted only one academic year. When offered a tenure-track teaching job at the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas, he accepted. Family stability and career advancement mattered.

In 2006, that mindset brought him back to UWA. Edwards chuckles when recalling his return to campus.

“Well, it changed a lot from ’99 until ’06,” he said. “I was surprised how much it changed.”

The same could be said for UWA during Edwards’ nearly 10 years as provost. When prodded, he lists a number of academic improvements and additions during his tenure of which he’s particularly pleased. 

“I was very excited and honored that I will be the first provost emeritus, as far as we know, in the history of this university. That was not expected, but it was really nice.”

— Dr. Tim Edwards

The meteoric growth of the university’s online programs may sit atop his list. Today, UWA offers more than 70 degree and certification programs and serves more than 4,000 online students. Reviving the music major marked a significant addition to the university catalog. “It’s still in its infancy, but we’re starting to produce our first music graduates in a long, long time,” he said. And the creation of the university’s first doctoral program — a doctorate in rural education — became an instant headline in UWA’s history.

“The university had tried in the past to secure a doctoral program, and that’s a hard thing for a small university,” Edwards said. “Early on, (College of Education Dean) Jan Miller and I had talked and said, ‘What are some of the degree programs, especially in the online environment, that could grow enrollment and elevate the profile of the university?’” 

The importance of that milestone event isn’t lost on him.

“I’m really proud of that,” he said.

An English professor who loves ‘old-school science fiction’

As reading, not masonry, became Edwards’ career path, the authors he chose evolved through a quirky pairing of literary giants. Before Twain — Edwards’ favorite author — he absorbed the novels of Robert Heinlein, a contemporary of Issac Asimov and a titan in the genre of science fiction. Asimov penned “I, Robot” and hundreds of other books and short stories. Heinlein wrote “Starship Troopers” and “Stranger in a Strange Land.” That he now considers Heinlein’s novels “old-school science fiction” that may not resonate among aficionados doesn’t alter his appreciation. Like time, readers change.

Or, as Edwards describes it, they mature.

Soon, Twain’s work bypassed science fiction and began resonating in the mind of the would-be brick mason’s son. Edwards enjoyed Twain’s phrasings and how he crafted compelling stories. From childhood to provost emeritus, his appreciation of Twain’s renowned literary approach hasn’t waned. 

Unlike authors who were resolutely serious, or worse, Twain dared to be different.

“He’s funny,” Edwards said. “He’s very funny, but he can also be biting in his satire. He just has a distinctive style of writing. I don’t know that I can tell you why, but when I pick up a paragraph and read it, I’m thinking, ‘That’s Mark Twain.’”

For Edwards, writing existed as a separate activity; related to reading, impossible to separate, but not automatically joined. He tried. What he learned was that it’s difficult, and it wasn’t the lodestar of his career.

“I was never nearly as good as some of my friends,” he said. “I’m not a fiction writer and I’m not a poet. I can write analytical, scholarly pieces, and that’s kind of what I was trained for.”

His administrative career has created a few byproducts. He misses teaching. And quiet mornings lost between the pages of a good book haven’t been as frequent. Work, as it often does, has taken precedence. Though he plans to teach American literature online courses at UWA after retirement, Edwards is eager to immerse himself in books that entertain rather than merely inform.  

“I’m not as voracious as I used to be because I tend to read what I teach, or I read lots of reports that are associated with my job,” he said. “So my wife keeps nagging at me about all the books I keep buying from Amazon because I’m stacking up a whole bunch to read in retirement.”

Dr. Tim Edwards at a recent UWA commencement ceremony.