Trailblazer Emily Roxworthy credits role-model mom for ‘bulletproof’ determination

Dean Emily Roxworthy of the USC School of Dramatic Arts addresses high school students attending a special performance of Into the Woods in November. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Social Impact

Trailblazer Emily Roxworthy credits role-model mom for ‘bulletproof’ determination

TITLE IX: The USC School of Dramatic Arts dean has thrived despite some people’s outdated attitudes.

April 28, 2023 Greg Hernandez

Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we are profiling Trojan trailblazers throughout the year. 

Growing up in Michigan, Dean Emily Roxworthy of the USC School of Dramatic Arts didn’t have to look any further than inside her own home to find “absolutely the most important female role model” in her life.

Title IX logoThat would be her mother, Margaret Colborn, who spent more than four decades working as a reporter and columnist for The Detroit News.

“I was very inspired by her career as a writer, and she really taught me that I can do absolutely anything I put my mind to,” Roxworthy said. “She herself worked so hard and suffered her own discrimination. But she gave me the most incredible self-esteem.”

Roxworthy firmly believes that unwavering support is “part of the reason I kind of went through the world so bulletproof.”

Title IX went into effect three years before she was born; Roxworthy is grateful for the law that so many who came before her pushed to have passed and enforced.

“When women can just know that this safeguard exists, it allows us to thrive,” she said. “We can really do what we came here to do, which is to learn, to network and to create.”

Fighting stereotypes

Still, Roxworthy quickly learned that Title IX wouldn’t be able to completely protect her against sexist attitudes. She has sometimes found herself having to fend off assumptions that she wouldn’t be as productive in an administrative job as other colleagues because she had young children at home.

“I became a mother when I was in graduate school getting my doctorate and then proceeded to have three more children while in various stages of my professorial life — both before and after I was fully tenured,” Roxworthy said. “If you focus on the strengths that being a mother brings versus the liabilities, being a mom is my most important training ground as an academic leader.”

Emily Roxworthy new dean USC School of Dramatic Arts
At the University of California, San Diego, Emily Roxworthy rose through the ranks to become associate vice chancellor of faculty diversity and equity, provost of Earl Warren College and associate dean of the graduate division. (Photo/Wonderstruck Photography)

But harsh judgment first came from an unexpected source while Roxworthy was earning her doctorate and starting a family. A woman who Roxworthy described as “a profound role model” reacted to the news of her first pregnancy by saying, “Haven’t you ever heard of birth control?” She was concerned that as a young mom, Roxworthy wouldn’t be able to land an academic job.

“The different waves of feminism have sometimes made generations of women tough on each other,” Roxworthy said. “My mentor from graduate school was of a different generation. How she succeeded was by choosing not to have kids and fully focusing on her career in that way.”

But Roxworthy stayed the course academically and professionally as her family grew.

After earning degrees in theater arts, literature and performance studies from Cornell University (master’s degree) and Northwestern University (bachelor’s and doctorate), she joined the department of theater and dance faculty at the University of California, San Diego. There, she rose through the ranks to become associate vice chancellor of faculty diversity and equity, provost of Earl Warren College and associate dean of the graduate division.

Roxworthy’s first book, The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma: Racial Performativity and World War II, was published by the University of Hawaii Press in 2008. Her second book, The Theatrical Professoriate: Contemporary Higher Education and Its Academic Dramas, was published by Routledge in 2020.

‘You’ll make it work’

Roxworthy’s personal experiences have made her especially understanding whenever a graduate student turns to her for advice about family planning.

“I’ll say, ‘All times are equally good, or equally bad, depending on how you look at it,’” she said. “‘I’ve done it every phase of the academic journey, so you’ll make it work.’”

But there are always skeptics.

When she first applied for an administrative job at UCSD, Roxworthy said one of the men on a 20-member search committee asked her how she planned to balance a demanding administrative role with her “private life.” She remembered choosing to reframe the question to make it about balancing the administrative work of the position with her research. The man persisted and finally came out and said, “No, I was asking about your kids.”

It was this moment where you’re waiting for someone in the room to say, ‘No, you can’t ask that.’ But nobody did.

Emily Roxworthy, USC School of Dramatic Arts dean

“It was this moment where you’re waiting for someone in the room to say, ‘No, you can’t ask that,’” Roxworthy said. “But nobody did. It was striking to me that it was still considered OK.”

Roxworthy didn’t move forward in that particular selection process but did land a similar position a few years later. The experience had a deep impact on her and informed her future diversity, equity and inclusion work.

Breaking patterns

“The idea of allyship and bystander intervention became very important to me,” she said. “I’m sure there are people in that room who knew that wasn’t right but didn’t feel prepared or empowered to say anything in the moment.”

When Roxworthy was chair of the University of California’s academic senate committee on affirmative action and diversity in 2014, she was charged with creating diversity training workshops that involved theater skills. The goal of the training was to break workplace patterns of unconscious bias, stereotyping and microaggressions.

This led to her founding the research-based theater company Workplace Interactive Theatre in 2015 so that all UC campuses could receive the training. The customized workshops are now available to companies and organizations.

Since arriving at USC in 2021, Roxworthy said she has seen how Title IX not only made the university “such an athletics powerhouse,” but how its legacy has influenced so many other aspects of higher education.

“Even for someone of my generation, Title IX wasn’t something we thought a lot about — which showed how far we had gotten,” she said. “For students today, it’s part of what we expect to be one of the safeguards in higher education: some guarantee of equal opportunity for all genders.”