Austin E. Quigley was born the second of five children, to school teachers Edmund and Marguerita Quigley, on December 31, 1942, in Northumberland, in Northern England, and later moved to the area of Newcastle. He earned a B.A. in English literature at the University of Nottingham in 1967, a M.A. in Modern Linguistics at Birmingham University, in 1969, and, after moving to the United States in 1969, a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1971, where he was the recipient of a Danforth Fellowship. In 1975, a revised version of his doctoral dissertation, "The Dynamics of Dialogue: A Study of the Plays of Harold Pinter", was published by Princeton University Press as his first book, The Pinter Problem.
Before he became an academic, Quigley's "first ambition was a career in professional soccer, and he played as a teenager for the junior team of one of England's premier clubs, Newcastle United," and also played "varsity soccer for Nottingham University and while a student there was selected to represent the county of Nottinghamshire."
He is married to Patricia D. Denison, a senior lecturer in English at Barnard College; they have four daughters, Laura Brugger, Rebecca Cooper, and Catherine and Caroline Quigley, and live in New York City.
Quigley's first teaching position was at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he worked for two years before moving to the University of Virginia, where he chaired the English department before leaving to become H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in 1990. He also held visiting appointments at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland; the University of Konstanz, in Germany; and the University of Nottingham, in England.
In addition to helping to found the undergraduate major in Drama and Theatre at Columbia University and Barnard College, he also reconstructed and renewed "the Ph.D. and M.F.A. programs in theater." He became associate director of the Columbia University Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theatre Studies in 1992 and chairman of the Lionel Trilling Seminars in 1993.
At the end of the 2008–09 academic year, after a term of 14 years, Quigley plans to resign from his posts as Dean of Columbia College and Lucy G. Moses Professor; beginning in academic year 2009–10, he will "continue to teach at Columbia and conduct research as the Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature and also will serve as special adviser to the president [of Columbia University] for undergraduate education."
His scholarly and critical specialities explore "the nature and status of explanatory frameworks in literary studies, and his work has focused on the interface between literary and linguistic theory and modern philosophy of language," the plays of Harold Pinter, and related topics in modern drama and theatre. When he became Dean of Columbia College in 1995, he had completed writing Theoretical Inquiry: Language, Linguistics, and Literary Studies, in which "he explores the capacity of theory to clarify the unexpected rather than confirm the presupposed," which was published by Yale University Press in 2004.