This is part of an ongoing series about tenured professors who chose to spend their career at Henderson State University.
By Joel Phelps
Peggy Dunn Sturba is no stranger to the foothills. Having been reared near the tiny Ozarks hamlet of Hardy, neither of her parents finished high school, let alone attended college. They both ingrained in a young Dunn to value education and pursue a fuller life. She would eventually leave home to begin her studies at the University of Central Arkansas, where she finished two degrees: one in business, the other in English. After earning a Masters degree from UCA, she continued her education at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, nestled in the Smoky Mountains. She taught part-time there until earning a doctorate in literature, and spent the next four years there as a full-time English instructor. It would be another foothills town, however, where she would spend the bulk of her career. The Ouachitas were calling, and she would answer.
Henderson State University was among three colleges hoping to recruit Sturba (then Bailey) in the summer of 2001. Though she still had another interview lined up at a university in Louisiana, Sturba knew before she left Henderson’s campus that she had found where she wanted to be. She returned to her home in Knoxville to weigh her options with family, and on the first day of August packed up and moved to Arkadelphia. She’s been a part of Henderson’s English Department since.
Two factors made Henderson Sturba’s choice: the friendly people and the school’s mission of being the state’s premiere public liberal arts university. “For me, that was so crucial,” Sturba said. “There is something very special about Henderson. The students and my colleagues were — 21 years ago and still are right now — just some of the most warm and authentic people I know.” Learning that Henderson had a high percentage of first-generation college students played another role Sturba’s choice, herself having been a first-generation college student. “A liberal arts education is the best preparation for virtually any career a student would want. I have believed that my entire life, and I still believe it.”
In her 21-year career at Henderson, Sturba says “scores” of students she’s taught or mentored have used their liberal arts education to pursue an array of professions. “They’re lawyers, they’re writers, they’re teachers, they’re business people,” she said. “They’re making a difference in the world, and I’m proud of all of them.”
Sturba taught in Henderson’s Honors College for two decades, and for six years was chair of the English, Foreign Languages and Philosophy Department (the largest academic department on campus). Aside from her professorship, Sturba has also published peer-reviewed articles, most of them on 19th Century British literature or contemporary Southern Gothic. Sturba was called abroad on two occasions to speak at conferences in Manchester, England, and in 2019 she presented at a literary conference in Paris, France. Additionally she has presented at numerous literary conferences across the U.S., several of which were across the Southeast.
But on May 2, Sturba was among dozens of professors who received a phone call that their services would no longer be needed. Being tenured, Sturba was among those given the option to stay one more year to “teach out” their programs as administrators form Henderson’s future. Like other Henderson professors in her shoes, Sturba isn’t ready yet to hang it up. “I am an educator, and that is a big part of who I am,” she said, “but I’m looking at the harsh reality that my career as a teacher is probably over.”
While Sturba’s decades of experience look good on paper — her curriculum vitae is six pages long — she fears that chances would be nil that another university would choose her over fresh blood, someone who would start with entry-level professorship and salary. Sturba is also the caregiver to her 92-year-old mother, and her husband has a job he doesn’t want to leave. “I can’t just pick up and move,” Sturba said. Her daughter, Hannah, just graduated high school and had been planning to attend Henderson to major in biology — another program that is being cut — leaving her to re-evaluate where she will study. “What happened in early May has led to our family having to rethink life for the next few years,” Sturba said.
Though she’s been thrown a curveball, Sturba said she doesn’t have bitterness in her heart. “I’ve had a wonderful career at Henderson,” she said. “Not only did I get to go to college, I got to teach in college for a lot of years, and I got to teach wonderful students and work with great colleagues. I am deeply grateful.”
She reflects on her time spent teaching at Henderson “with a great deal of affection. I have met, taught and become friends with so many students, and worked with colleagues that I firmly believe will be friends for the rest of our lives.” Though she’s “deeply saddened” by how abruptly her career ended, the Henderson where she taught will hold a special place in her heart.
“I will remember it very fondly.”
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