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On Being a Provost: Four Simple Truths About a Complex Role

The EvoLLLution | On Being a Provost: Four Simple Truths About a Complex Role
Though the roles and responsibilities of provosts differ significantly from institution to institution based on myriad factors, there are some universal truths about the role that are important for leaders to know when considering and stepping into these positions.

Provosts, or Academic Vice Presidents, sit at the epicenter or crossroads of the academic decision-making environment. The most important academic initiatives—concerning students, faculty, shared governance, the distribution of resources, how the institution will engage its multiple constituencies—will fail or succeed depending upon the commitment, effectiveness and ability of the provost. While charismatic and forceful presidents articulate strategic initiatives, without a trusting relationship and capable provost to steer initiatives through to implementation, little can be accomplished. Parenthetically, without a supportive president, little can be accomplished by provosts.

The portfolio of the provost is determined, to a large extent, by the mission of the institution, as well as its size, available resources, level of federal research funding, type of students served, affiliation, the role of faculty, and its position in the academic hierarchy. The role and responsibilities of the provost at the University of Florida or Cornell, for example, are very different than those for provosts at a state university in New York or Illinois. Nor is the role similar at a private liberal arts university when compared to what a provost does at a public community college. Factors such as external funding, the degree of access a provost may have to the president or board, levels of institutional prestige, and a host of personal, institutional and demographic variables impact both the influence and decision-making prerogatives of individuals occupying these positions. Of course, there are similarities in functions, obligations and decision-making prerogatives regardless of the kinds of schools, colleges and universities in which a provost may serve. Finally, and although not the subject of this essay, the influence and effectiveness of presidents or chancellors are also informed by the same individual, demographic and institutional variables.

With these caveats in mind, I offer the following advice to those who serve (or hope to serve) in these roles. These four simple truths are based on my experience having served in this position at a private liberal arts university in the Midwest, at a land grant system in the west, and at a comprehensive state university in the northeast.

1. The Perceptions Of Others Matter

Provosts, (all senior administrators) must demonstrate the ability to be fair, dispassionate in their approach to solving academic challenges, and able to elevate the institutional mission over individual interests. Disciplinary expertise and modeling behaviors that faculty respect (even when they disagree) are important. Without credibility, which underpins perceptions, one will have difficulty being an effective provost. Beyond being a good mentor and dispassionate scholar, a provost normally operates in highly political environments. For this reason, a healthy dose of skepticism and being prescient about the motives of others is helpful in my opinion. Those who are “irony deficient” do not often succeed. The ability to protect one’s turf from incursions by other units or individuals (in my experience most often by those who wield power but do not really understand the nature of the college or university), or by losing too many skirmishes to those who claim in one way or another, to bring order to the enterprise (a dubious goal), will inevitably hurt the stature of the provost. I would surmise that a wounded provost (in most cases) is of little value to a president. The reverse is also true. Provosts need to demonstrate certain ferocity in the decisions they champion. But pick your issues, adversaries (and demeanor in opposing or championing such) wisely!

2. Insist On Criteria For Decisions

Absent established, accepted and vetted criteria, decisions are difficult to defend. More importantly, institutional initiatives, deemed so important to presidents, boards, faculty or students, can fail or stall when it is discovered the decision to select a particular course of action or priority over another may have been made without defensible criteria. Criteria are indispensable, in my experience, for decisions that lead to one course of action or priority over another and which may ultimately be challenged by one constituency or another.

3. Manage Up, Down and Out

Managing is an art as well as a science. The science part can be learned. The art must be acquired through experience. The following approaches to managing, in my experience, seem to work well in academic organizations.

  • Present people with alternatives and explain the consequences of actions and decisions, rather than saying “no” immediately. Although “no” may be the inevitable answer, try to help others come to the same realization as you have without saying no;
  • Trust those around you. People will never trust you unless they perceive that you in turn trust them. Trust is the true coin of the realm in a college or university environment;
  • Be aware of shifting truisms over time. The progressives of one era are often thought to be the reactionaries of the next. Be discerning about the ideas and initiatives you embrace;
  • Without a budget line good ideas rarely get implemented;
  • Support those who report to you. Their success is your success;
  • Stay close to the president, follow up conversations in writing, make sure the president understands all the implications of saying “yes” or “no” to your suggestions; make sure they support what you are doing. If the relationship with the president is seriously attenuated, or cannot be repaired, think about an exit strategy. The leverage to negotiate an exit decreases in proportion to the level of animus or distrust between a provost and president;
  • Support from faculty (and the deans) is essential; one cannot be effective without it. Work to respond to the moderates and rational among the faculty. Those who are disenfranchised, not engaged, driven by an agenda, angry or extreme in their views, will never support you unless you are fulfilling their agenda, and even then they may not be supportive. Be aware of those with superficial loyalties or public pledges of support. Remember, no one succeeds without a trusted inner team;
  • Reciprocity is alive and well. Understand its uses and limitations;

 4. Nature vs. Nurture

I have often wondered which is more important, what we do as provosts, or the type of institution and the context in which we work! The mission and resources of the institution play a role; institutional and demographic variables shape the nature of what we can accomplish. Of course individual behavior also matters! That being said, understanding the environment in which the provost works is a sine qua non. Perhaps it is important to remember that decisions in academic organizations are invariably made by committees and agreed to by a senior leader, so endeavor to manage the committee process.[1] That authority and power (not the same) are often decentralized and to be effective one must know how to be persuasive over those whom you may lack formal authority. That decisions and issues have a way of coming around again and again; “Yes” as an acceptable answer lasts about six months in an academic setting. Folks with whom you work may have a distorted view of reality, those responsible for funding institutional budgets and operations may see things in an entirely different light. Keep in mind that the Golden Rule is invariably shaped by those with the gold! Understand the mission of the school in which you labor and the priorities of primary clients and constituencies who often outlast your tenure as provost.

In my experience the only lasting impact provosts have on the institution comes as a result of the faculty and staff who are hired during the time the provost serves. So search wisely! It is my hope these simple truths will be of value to those fortunate enough to serve in these positions.

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[1] See also; D.J. Julius, “How to Exercise influence and Implement Ideas in Colleges and Universities,” The Evolllution, June 22, 2016.

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