Challenging and Rewarding in Equal Measure: Five Things New Provosts Might Not Know
Identifying five things new provosts might not know about the job isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most provosts are old hands at academic administration, having been deans and chairs already. Nonetheless, despite having been an academic administrator of one kind or another since 1991, being provost the last five or so years has taught me some important lessons that I hope may be helpful to others.
1. Making Decisions is Surprisingly Easy
Decisions are really pretty easy. The main reason any of us are at an institution of higher education—from a top-ranked Research 1 to the smallest community college—is our students. Student success is our greatest mission. Every decision must be made with their best interests as the major criterion. It’s not painless, but it is surprisingly easy.
2. Metric Hell is the Reality
We are in metric hell. You might as well learn to enjoy the warmth. My state, Florida, has long based its funding for public higher education on specific (and limited) metrics. National and international disciplinary and institutional rankings are metric-based as well, although their measures sometimes are in direct opposition to state metrics. That’s certainly true in my case. I pay close attention to well over a hundred metrics that can impact my institution in significant ways. Regardless, taking the academic “high road”—by ignoring externally imposed metrics—may well leave you with fewer resources as well as reduced visibility.
Internal metrics at every institution likely include strategic plans that establish goals and, one would hope, include specific ways to measure how well those goals are met. Such accountability is increasingly critical to boards, alumni and other interested parties, including many donors with their own expectations for performance and measurement.
3. It’s Tough, but Critical, to Stay Neutral
You cannot have a favorite child. Every unit that reports to you has needs and likely many good reasons for increased support. Despite your own disciplinary leanings, try never to prefer one unit over another. Use the metrics that drive you, both external and internal, to structure any calls for new resource requests. Review all requests with those metrics in mind. Always remember the first point above (i.e., “It’s the students, stupid”). Be as transparent as you can in your decisions and be prepared to reward any prodigal colleague who shows great improvement not only in meeting the goals of their own unit, but also in working toward the institutional priorities as a whole.
4. Your Team is Your Rock
Fourth, build your team and respect their input. My own Rapid Response Team includes the handful of assistant and associate provosts with whom I meet regularly. They have special areas of emphases in their portfolios, but also understand deeply our university’s major initiatives and available resources. They bring a range of disciplinary and generational (ages 31-73) perspectives to every issue. I make the final decisions and take whatever heat those may bring. But the collaboration of the team is behind the successes we achieve, and I give my team credit every chance I can. They rock!
5. You are Your Community’s Rock
Finally, tragedy will happen. From deaths by accidents, suicides and illnesses, to unpredictable natural disasters and random violence, all who fall under your purview are at risk. We recently had a random shooting at a yoga studio in my city. A beloved senior student and a wonderful medical school colleague were killed, and several other students and alumni were injured. A law student was a true hero; he tried to subdue the shooter twice and allowed others to escape, while suffering his own injuries, which luckily were not severe. This awful tragedy came on the heels of the devastating Category 5 Hurricane Michael that damaged our Panama City branch campus and destroyed much of its surrounding area and the homes and family livelihoods of many of our students, faculty and staff. We were able to reopen classes within two weeks, but the widespread devastation throughout the entire region and among our university constituents will have serious impacts for years to come.
As the provost you must remember that when such tragedy strikes it impacts the entire campus community, including your faculty and academic staff. When tragedies happen, and they will, provosts must be front and center with presidents and other campus and community leaders to recognize and attend to grief and fear through vigils and ceremonies, fundraising efforts and volunteer organizing and work. It is paramount to help rebuild calm, inspire confidence and strengthen resiliency among all those affected. Your physical and digital presence and communications are vital. The resources of your office must be part of the overall institutional response and the planning for handling of any future such events.
This Path is Challenging and Rewarding
I hope these five insights from my service as a provost may be helpful to those embarking on that path. It is a remarkably challenging and rewarding journey. Although every institution and every provost’s role differ, I suspect that we’re all alike in many ways!
Author Perspective: Administrator