University of New Mexico Professor Emerita Janet (Jan) Roebuck died on July 5, 2020. She was the first woman chair of the UNM Department of History and first female senior administrator in the Office of Academic Affairs. Roebuck was a scholar of modern English social history focused on public policy in industrial society, social welfare, and urban development in 19th century London.
Roebuck was born on September 1, 1943 in Rotherham, England, the daughter of Ernest and Olive (Dean) Roebuck. She attended the University of Wales and graduated in 1964, becoming the first of her working-class family to graduate from high school and university. In a 1979 Daily Lobo Roebuck recalled, “I was born near the coal-steel town of Rotherham, England. My father was a coal miner. . . and coal mines were very much a part of my young life.” Her family home had “no yard, no electricity, no hot water and a toilet shared with the family at the end of the row house. We had two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs.” As a girl from a work-class background, few expected her to finish high school let alone earn a Ph.D. and by the age of 25.
After completing her Ph.D. work at the University of London in 1968, she arrived at UNM in August of that year, having borrowed money for the airfare and anticipating only staying one year. In 1969, the department permanently hired her, and she quickly became “hooked on the desert” and found a home at UNM. In rapid succession, Roebuck published three significant studies on the development of industrial society in England: The Making of Modern English Society from 1850 (1973); The Shaping of Urban Society (1974) which was based on a her popular UNM course, “The City in History,” and Urban Development in 19th Century London” Lambeth, Battersea, and the Wandsworth, 1838-1888 (1979). Roebuck’s “smooth-flowing” narratives chronicled the changes that took place in English urban society in the nineteenth century.
Roebuck established a reputation as an advocate for faculty rights and governance, serving as the chair of both the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee and the Committee on Governance during the 1970s. From 1978-1980, she was president of the Faculty Senate. In 1980, she became chair of the Department of History. Noel Pugach, professor emeritus of history, notes that “her most important legacy was to make the Department more democratic and participatory.” During the 1980s, Roebuck advocated for the advancement of women into the senior ranks of the faculty and into higher administrative offices. Charlie Steen, professor emeritus of history, described her as “a force in the Department from the beginning and watching her destroy the steel ceiling [of UNM administration] was a great experience.”
Working on a task force to map out the direction of the university for the millennium, Roebuck and other senior faculty women joined forces to highlight the absence of women in upper administration at UNM. In 1988, Roebuck disputed the assertion by a UNM senior administrator that there were “no women on this campus with the qualifications and experience to support their being moved into positions of higher administration.” She responded, “Senior UNM women, by definition, are not only successful in their fields, they include many people who have been and are department chairs, deans, senate presidents, and a host of other responsible and experienced University officers.” Jane Slaughter, professor emerita of history, recalled how hard Roebuck “fought for women to be considered equal to their male colleagues and for her support of Women’s Studies and scholarship on women here at UNM.”
In 1986, Roebuck was appointed interim vice president for Academic Affairs. Three years later, she was named associate vice president for Academic Affairs, serving in this position until her retirement from UNM in 1999. Her embodiment of and insistence on women’s leadership in the academy, reverberate throughout the university to this day.
Her teaching, research, and service earned her recognition by the UNM Board of Regents in 1980 when she received the Regents’ Meritorious Service Award. The award recognizes a member of the faculty for outstanding teaching, service to students, research, scholarship, publications, and performance in faculty and University governance. Other professional recognition followed.
Throughout her life, Jan Roebuck relished all that life has to offer. Travel and learning brought her great delight. Her love of the outdoors found expression in a wide range of activities from hiking and backpacking to skiing, fishing streams, bike riding, stargazing and time spent at her beloved cabin in southern Colorado. While not surprising to those closest to her, these activities often mystified those who knew her only through professional connection. In her retirement, she traveled throughout the world until a series of injuries kept her home in her beloved desert, for the last four years at La Vida Llena.
Although she had no immediate family "by blood" in New Mexico, her friendliness and devotion to everyone important in her life meant that she built a large "family of choice" with those who loved and honored her. In England, she is survived by her cousin, Brenda Stockdale and her daughter, Jeanine Stockdale of Rawmarsh, Borough of Rotherham in South Yorkshire, England.
Roebuck belonged to a generation of English and American women when class and gender defined many of their life choices. “Early in her life, Jan chose a path which defied the conventions of the time and by doing so forged a path that many of her colleagues have continued to follow, even those who did not know Jan personally,” said Melissa Bokovoy, professor of history.
Virginia Scharff, distinguished professor emerita of history, describes Jan as “a great mentor, advocate, and role model for women professors at UNM. She supported my work from the beginning and showed me a lot about how to stand up for myself, women colleagues, the department and the humanities.” Roebuck valued most highly the personal and professional success and happiness of colleagues, staff, students and friends.
Anyone wishing to donate in Jan’s memory might make a contribution in her name to their favorite charity or to one of hers: PBS NM; the Wilderness Society; Fighting Poverty with Microfinance and Social Enterprise (FINCA) or the Full Life Foundation for La Vida Llena.
A memorial service at UNM will be scheduled at a later date due to the pandemic.