Cowgirl at heart: Heaton takes over at SNU


Ryland Sweigard for SNU

Dr. Jill Heaton will oversee the merger of SNU with UNR.

Delany Burk, Editor


Jill Heaton, Sierra Nevada University’s new executive vice president and provost, might be a little bit out of her comfort zone in the high sierra. She is a self-proclaimed cowgirl at heart, and used to ranch life in Nevada’s high desert, where she lives with her partner and her animals. For the past two months she’s been reliving the college life away from the open range, temporarily occupying a small dorm suite.
Heaton grew up in a ranching family, and continues to love the lifestyle, which she shares with her partner who is a full time farmer and rancher. Although she is now enjoying living among the students, she says that her ranch is still a “never-boring” escape for her, providing a time-consuming and challenging (but restful) way to recuperate from her day job.
“Farming and ranching means that oftentimes you have to make do with exactly what is in front of you,” Heaton said. “You don’t always have the opportunities to get the most expensive thing, or fix it exactly right, so it is actually a very creative endeavor.”

Dr. Jill Heaton is most comfortable at her Nevada Ranch. (Courtesy photo)

Heaton also says her animals help to keep her smiling.
“I have been charged by bulls, I have been knocked over by rams, I have been tossed over fences by mad sows, and so the other thing it does is [instills a belief that] ‘there’s nothing I can’t do,’” she said. “Everyone’s got their therapy. I just happen to play around with animals.”
In addition to her ranching background, Heaton has a strong academic pedigree. She studied geography, earning her PhD from Oregon State University in 2001 before serving a three-year “post-doc” at The University of Redlands, and joining the faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno, in the Geography department in 2004. In fact, in addition to her role at SNU, Heaton is still faculty in the geography department at UNR, and says that she will probably return once her commitment to SNU is fulfilled. Before taking the top job at SNU this fall to oversee UNR’s acquisition of the liberal arts college, Heaton served in the leadership on the administrative side at UNR as senior vice provost.
Heaton says her previous role at UNR, which involved working closely with students and building courses, are all “critical to understanding how the academic side of the house works.”

Dr. Jill Heaton’s academic background includes expertise in desert wildlife. (Courtesy Photo)

As an academic Heaton’s background also extends into biology, and specifically into the study of reptiles and amphibians. She relates her experiences in this field to art in many ways, but says that her studies of reptiles in Namibia and the necessity for integrating multiple media for that research was a creative and artistic experience for her. Heaton is passionate about her work in these many fields, and says that in her opinion, “a life that stretches you in all the emotions is a good life.”
Heaton also emphasizes that students remain the highest priority during the college’s transition.
“UNR is very committed to student success and ensuring that you have a path to receive a degree in the discipline that you want, and that you chose when you came here,” she said. “Our plan is to work with you individually to find the successful path forward for you, in the UNR family.”
Heaton has committed to two years working at SNU to see the merge through, but says she will be happy to stay until the team can find someone else who can run the university.
Heaton shares executive duties with former chief financial officer Sue Johnson, who shares the title of executive vice president.