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  • Writer's pictureMaya Weed

Labor of Love

Updated: May 18, 2021

Professor couples on their marriage of the head and the heart.

By Maya Weed

The Meet-Cutes

Years ago, beyond its brick walls and stone pillars, the University of Virginia held a mixer at its campus tennis courts as a reprieve from the ordinary rhythm of academic business. Attendees tossed their names into a hat to be randomly sorted into teams for a mixed doubles tournament. In a moment of serendipity, one Patricia Denison and one Austin Quigley were paired together to face off against the other teams.

Denison was athletic throughout her childhood, which apparently gave the pair quite the edge, as their combined efforts won them the tournament. After their victory, they had the chance to properly get to know one another off the tennis court and over the bottle of wine they received as a prize—“the kind that’s better suited for cooking rather than drinking,” as they told me in our recent conversation. The good fortune of that first day was only the beginning of a much longer-lasting partnership between the two scholars.

A few states over, in September 1991, another campus meet-cute occurred in the hallway of the University of Georgia’s anthropology department—that of Paige West and J.C. Salyer. West explained to me that after that moment, the two “were best friends for a decade” before marrying on Feb. 14, 1999, a date strategically chosen “so I would remember our anniversary,” West admitted. “It’s not like a love-y Valentine’s Day thing.”

On the West Coast, Ivana and Emlyn Hughes met twice, years apart. First, the pair crossed paths at Caltech while Ivana was an undergrad taking Emlyn’s course. “In a large lecture hall, she was correcting me,” Emlyn conceded after Ivana laughingly recounted their initial interaction. She brought up the B+ he gave her in his class—answered with sharp insistence that he was “very fair on my grading.” Years later, they encountered again when Ivana was earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Stanford, where Emlyn then worked.

In New York, in May 1994, Columbia formed a committee for the arts and sciences that brought together faculty of various disciplines across the University—the early equivalent of the current Policy and Planning Committee. Italian professor Teodolinda Barolini remembers when she was chosen to join: “I was quite recently widowed. And I discovered that the northern part of the Columbia campus had available people that were much less visible in the southern half of the campus.” Barolini recalled the charm of a certain pair of Bass Weejuns that belonged to James J. Valentini, a chemistry professor at the time. She remains grateful for that fateful grouping, for “he was in Havemeyer Hall and I was in Hamilton Hall. We would never have met.”

Cast of Characters

From collegiate chance encounters near and far, all roads converged in Morningside Heights. The work of each professor along the way made them independently recognizable as accomplished scholars and intellectually compatible with their romantic partner.

Most Columbia students now know that loafer-clad chemistry professor as “Deantini,” the current Dean of Columbia College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education. Previously the chair of the undergraduate Chemistry department, he still teaches, including a class this spring named “Energy and Energy Conservation.” His wife, Teodolinda Barolini, on the other end of the liberal arts spectrum, is the Lorenzo Da Ponte Professor of Italian at Columbia, whose research has focused on the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, to name a few.

Dean Emeritus Austin Quigley, one of Valentini’s predecessors, is now a Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature. His wife, Patricia Denison, is acting associate chair of the

Department of English at Barnard and senior lecturer in English, and she also serves as the liaison between Barnard’s English and Theatre departments.

Elsewhere in Milbank Hall, Paige West resides as a Claire Tow Professor of Anthropology, director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia, and co-director of the Barbara Silver Horowitz ’55 Scholars of Distinction program at Barnard. Her husband, J. C. Salyer, is the director of the Human Rights program at Barnard and an assistant professor of practice in Anthropology and Human Rights. He also currently works as a staff attorney at the Arab-American Family Support Center, running the Center’s immigration clinic.

As for the Hugheses, Ivana Hughes is the director of Frontiers of Science and senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry. She is also the director of the K=1 Project, Center for Nuclear Studies. Emlyn Hughes is the founding director of the K=1 Project, as well as a professor of Physics.

Collaborative Beauty

Since most of these academics specialize in related disciplines to their partner, if not the same one, there have been fruitful opportunities for collaboration between spouses throughout their relationships.

When Ivana Hughes started to direct Frontiers of Science, she suggested Emlyn as a lecturer for a unit covering quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and nuclear weapons. After conducting those first sets of lectures, Emlyn started a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Study Group in the summer of 2011 with a select handful of students. Because of the initial success of that summer, the initiative expanded, Ivana became more involved, and the project eventually blossomed into the K=1 Project.

According to Ivana, “The whole overall effort has really been focused on students learning more about topics related to nuclear technologies,” necessary in part because younger generations are generally less familiar with these issues. In recent years, the projects and research trips have looked closely at the effects of U.S. nuclear weapons testing on the local people and environment of the Marshall Islands. Unable to lead a trip this summer due to travel restrictions, Emlyn Hughes will teach a new Global Core class about the Marshall Islands during the Summer A session.

West and Salyer’s collaborative work has taken them a little farther west into the Pacific. West has been conducting ecological research in Papua New Guinea since 1996, but her work there and Salyer’s expertise on immigration and human rights converged upon the reopening of the Manus Island Detention Center in 2013. Salyer’s previous work with the ACLU, just post-9/11, had made him very interested in the inner workings of immigration law. “The U.S. has served as one small example,” he observed, “of a global sort of inward-turning and xenophobia.”

Salyer felt the resonance of this xenophobic sentiment again when the Australian government opened the Manus Island Detention Center in PNG (one of Australia’s former colonies) to detain asylum seekers. West recounted the events that inspired them to pursue more work in PNG, “Sitting on the beach in Palm Cove, we immediately knew the kinds of stories that were not going to be told: the stories about Papua New Guineans who would have to deal with this camp.” Since then, the two have sought to share those stories through publishing ethnographic, political, and legal field-based research.

While Quigley and Denison have not often pursued joint projects together, their professional lives have overlapped in their capacities as administrators. Quigley served as the Dean of Columbia College for 14 years, a role that “incorporates an extensive social life, with many events of many kinds, often involving your partner.” As Quigley finished his period as dean, Dension became an Associate Provost at Barnard, which brought with it similar social engagements which Quigley would, in turn, attend as Denison’s husband. It was “a wonderful exchange of roles,” he said. Denison was thankful to take on an administrative title herself, musing, “If you can make a small difference shaping the institution and experience of students, there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”

Unlike the other featured couples, Barolini’s and Valentini’s professional endeavors have not intersected much since being fortuitously gathered on a committee designed to span far-reaching departmental corners of our campus. Reflecting on their different academic paths, Barolini expressed how she could not imagine marrying someone who specialized in her same field or department. Instead, she and Valentini have enjoyed engaging with one another’s contrasting yet complementary minds. “I would like to say that I sensitized him to the humanities long before he became dean,” Barolini explained. In particular, she said that she “mainly made him hear an awful lot about classical literature and Dante. And that was really, I think, something that made him all the more suited to becoming dean of Columbia College.”

“And I’ve talked to Teo about the second law of thermodynamics,” Valentini hastened to say.

“That is absolutely true. And I do believe that the second law of thermodynamics is the most important thing going,” Barolini said. They went back and forth, trading ideas about the many joys of sharing their inverse approaches to viewing the world—how to think of objects and people, measurements, and culture. “If you happen to be married to someone whose knowledge base and perspective and experience is far different from your own,” Valentini voiced, that is “really an enriching experience in a very, very significant way.”

Sweet Home Columbia

Across the Broadway border between Barnard and Columbia, Quigley and Denison’s paths do not cross often on our physical campus. “We’ve wanted to keep things separate as far as our careers were concerned,” Quigley said. It became important for them to possess their own academic identities—to be seen as more than the other’s spouse.

“It matters to have a sense of your own autonomy,” Denison pointed out. She spoke of how, “especially early on, people just did not know we were together—even when we had the same students.” They made sure to clarify, however, that “It wasn’t that we hid our relationship, but we were content to leave it unmentioned and unobtrusive.” The two have developed their own rhythms when it comes to their Columbia routines, making time together a welcome shift from their work lives. “Often, when one of us is free, the other isn’t,” Denison explained. “So we have to plan time together, not least for theater outings.”

When Valentini worked in the chemistry department, he and Barolini were separated by College Walk. Ten years ago, that all changed. “He actually invaded my space,” Barolini said, speaking with a chuckle of her husband’s promotion. “He moved from Havemeyer to Hamilton, where he had a much nicer office than I had, who had been there my entire career.” The move, though, did make it easier for Valentini to occasionally pop into her classroom to say hi to his wife and her students, and for the pair to coordinate the walk home together after work.

Both the anthropologists (Paige West/J.C. Salyer) and the scientists (Ivana Hughes/Emlyn Hughes) laughed about their constant proximity on and off campus. West and Salyer are neighbors, with adjacent offices in Milbank Hall. West remembered a day when a student discovered their marriage through a mundane interaction while the couple was teaching in the same classroom. As she was speaking to the class, West recounted, “I did what I would do at home—I just reached across and picked up his cup of coffee—like, took a drink of it.” At that a student called out in triumph, “I knew you were married!”

About her and her husband’s offices in Pupin, Ivana said, “Emlyn’s office is directly above mine. And I keep saying that I’m gonna have a hole dug in and put one of those fireman poles so we can just slide up and down.” The pair laughed: “We don’t do a very good job of separating,” they admitted. Now that their home doubles as their office space and classes are virtual, the Hugheses’ days are even more intertwined. Ivana teasingly griped about the volume of Canvas-related questions Emlyn has asked her recently—in his defense, this spring did mark his first time teaching a virtual class.

On that note, the couples and I discussed the toll of this past year, and what they hope will soon return from customary campus life. West reminisced about the camaraderie of the old days when she could meet up with colleagues for dinner. She especially pines for Pisticci—“kind of the Columbia faculty cafeteria.” Barolini also commented on how “boring” the past year has been in the absence of quality time with friends. Valentini lamented, “All those serendipitous, casual meetings just ended, and everything’s calculated, scheduled.”

Emlyn Hughes began to strongly sympathize with the students in his Intro to Physics course this semester, almost entirely first-years who have never experienced campus in person. He promised his class of 80 in January that he would throw a party in his and Ivana’s Riverside Drive apartment in one year’s time if social distancing rules no longer apply. Ivana started telling the 22 students in her own class the same. Emlyn jokingly accused her of stealing his idea and insisted, “My party’s gonna be bigger, that’s gonna be better!” Perhaps Valentini and Barolini, who live in the same apartment building, can judge when the time comes.

10 Things I [Love] About You

For each couple, I concluded the interview by asking them to share something they admire about their spouse as an academic professional.

Illustration by Samia Menon

Forces of Nuclear

“Oh, I can do that so easily,” Ivana quickly replied. “My husband is the most creative person I know.” She went on to say, “It’s just so amazing to be part of a journey together, where he comes up with what I often call crazy ideas. All the time. And then some of them are really great crazy ideas. So I love his creativity and really his passion for things.” Moreover, “when he does something, it’s because he really wants to do it. It’s not because it’s a job or, you know, someone has told him to do it. It’s the work of love.”

Emlyn followed: “Ivana loves teaching, she loves students, she’s like everybody’s mom.” Detailing the depth of her commitment to leading FroSci, he recognized that “It’s a huge job, and she just does it with full passion,” and commended her “ability to interact with people, and her love of teaching, or love of science.” He lastly confirmed that “her description of me as being the crazy one—that’s true. And so she’s like the stabilizing force—and you need that.”

Anthropology Hall

Salyer was the first to answer of the pair, after laughing at the question. “I think both as a person and as an anthropologist,” he started, “a great strength—and in some ways personal vulnerability—Paige brings in her work is her empathy. She is the most empathetic person I’ve ever met.” He observed that for West, “It just makes her work very vibrant, very insightful. But at the same time, I think it’s also a personal sacrifice.”

West then turned to her husband and applauded his own empathetic and critical understanding of the lived experiences of people enmeshed in global structures of migration and mobility. She clarified that “he is someone that thinks at multiple scales simultaneously.” Of his talent as a teacher, she insisted that “as much as he says that I’m empathetic, he has a kind of kindness and empathy to students that I think is really, pretty impressive.”

When Valentini Met Barolini

“First of all, he’s [an] extraordinarily honest and straightforward person,” Barolini said, almost immediately after I asked the question. She spoke highly of Valentini’s tenacity, especially when faced with a seemingly “impossible task.” She explained “Jim’s” mindset: “One foot after the other. You just keep going. You stay up however late you have to stay up. It will eventually get done.” In summation: “He’s a warrior with a mild demeanor—but a warrior.”

Valentini warmly took his cue. “I’ve said to so many people, so many times” that “she is one of the two smartest people I’ve ever known. And I’ve got to put context to that. As a graduate student and a postdoc, I worked for two Nobel Prize winners, and I know lots of Nobel Prize winners, and I seek her advice a lot about a lot of things. And it really is because her perspective on understanding people and human relationships is really, truly, I mean truly remarkable.” After a moment, “And the other thing is, she thinks so fast compared to me. I am a slow thinker.”

She interjected, “I think it’s just that you’re a more prudent person than I am.”

“I don’t know if I’m more prudent,” he responded. “She is my most important adviser on everything. On being dean, on being a professor, on being a parent. She is, because she’s one of the two smartest people I’ve ever known. (I’m not the other one, by the way.)”

Barolini got the last word in on the matter. “He is more prudent than I am. He’s more prudent—I’m more impetuous.”

Shakespeare ‘n Love

After a moment of thought, Quigley said of Denison, “It’s important to be smart, lively, intellectually curious, and to love your job—teaching.” He went on, “What exemplifies what we have in common is our love of the job, intellectual curiosity, and passion to share that with students and with each other.” He made sure to stress that last phrase again: “and with each other.”

Denison, in turn, praised Quigley, “He absolutely loves teaching and learning things from wonderfully creative, imaginative students. Also, when things get very demanding, he’s able to focus on what he needs to do now, in any given moment, knowing that everything else will still be there when he’s done.” They chuckled together as Denison said, “At one point we stopped believing that our lives were going to slow down—but it’s because we love what we do.”

Quigley agreed, concluding, “We share our delight, and so we keep doing it.”


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