Penfield earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Alabama. He joined the BSC faculty as an assistant professor in 1967, teaching political science. He was promoted to full professor in 1980. He helped establish the school's majors in political science and sociology as the first chair of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences. Later, as director of the Master of Arts Public and Private Management Program he helped launch the school's graduate program in business.
Penfield was named dean of the college and vice president for academic affairs in 1985. His title was changed to "provost" in 1996. He was instrumental in establishing Birmingham-Southern's Leadership Studies Program and oversaw implementation of the Honors Program, Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum, Latin American Studies, and the Foundations Program. He also helped found the Associated Colleges of the South.
After retiring, Penfield was given the title of Provost Emeritus. A scholarship fund for political science students was established in his honor, and the Dr. H. Irvin Penfield Plaza adjoining the Elton B. Stephens Science Center was named for him.
- "Longtime Birmingham-Southern Provost and Dean Irvin Penfield passes away." (September 16, 2010) Birmingham-Southern College press release