Another New Provost?

Full vitae next provost

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Ten years ago, if you had asked me to predict what my biggest challenge would be as a research scientist, I never would have imagined that the answer would turn out to be: "a new provost every two years." But here we are.

In the past decade, since I started work in a tenure-track position here, we have had eight provosts. When you subtract the interim ones, we’ve only had four. However, I think it’s more than fair to count the interims, because they last almost as long as the "permanent" ones. I wish I was kidding. Frankly, most of the interims have been better than most of the permanents — though I do have high hopes for our new "permanent" provost, who started this academic year.

Not one of our permanent hires have come from within — they’re always fixers from the outside. I’m prepared for the routine every time it happens. They come in, take several months to diagnose what we are doing wrong, put a superficial patch on a deep problem, proclaim success, and move to greener pastures. The color of those new pastures is not just any shade of green. It’s the salary of a more elite line of employment.

All of the new permanent provosts have said they were planning to stay in the position for at least five years. Of course, I don’t believe that when I hear it, and I can’t imagine that anyone else who has gone through a couple of our provost cycles would believe it, either. But I’m really curious if it’s a matter of intentional lying or a bit of self-deception. Maybe they really do think they’ll stay.

We keep hiring provosts who want to be presidents. And we keep hiring folks who have no connection to our university, nor to our geographic area. These folks don’t appear to have an intrinsic motivation to follow through on what they’ve started. How many people dream of becoming a provost? Why would you stay as a provost when you can be a president? I can think of a lot of good reasons, but then again, I’m not on that career path.

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad if we had administrative consistency at lower levels. Not only am I on my fourth permanent provost in 10 years, but my fourth permanent dean, too. The deans don’t leave because they get promoted — they mostly retire or return to the faculty, because they are exhausted by the lack of focus from higher administration. (And the one we wanted to move on promptly was the one who stayed the longest!)

Every new provost has new big plans. And when those new big plans change every year or two, how can the deans possibly implement a consistent vision? I think it’s clear how our extraordinarily high administrative turnover is a problem for the success of our entire institution and our students. But it’s also making it hard and unpleasant for me to do my job as a faculty member on a day-to-day basis.

You would think that administrators would love it when researchers bring in grants. And you’d be right. But each administrator has his or her own way of incentivizing faculty members. So when you have a new dean or a new provost for each new grant deadline, the grant-writing gears get jammed up. Here’s how.

  • I had a written arrangement with my provost for one grant proposal I submitted: If it was funded, I would receive a modest amount of reassigned time from teaching so that I could do the work. Six months later, I got the phone call from the program officer that I was going to be funded. But then the new provost refused to honor the arrangement I had made with the previous one. When I informed the new provost and the dean that I wasn’t going to accept the grant, the dean found the money. That was a game of chicken I was prepared to lose.
  • On another occasion, I was part of a large team putting together a major site proposal that required university support. After we had the proposal ready to go, a different new provost wouldn’t commit the support we had secured from the previous provost a year earlier.
  • Just this year, a new dean with new priorities made a policy change, preventing me from submitting a proposal that I had been planning for the past two years — well before my new dean was hired.

I have plenty more examples, but you’ve gotten the idea. By the time new provosts and deans have earned the faculty’s trust, they’ve already moved on. Is consistent leadership too much to ask for? I’m tired of putting money and effort into projects when I have no idea whether they will be supported a year later by yet another new dean or provost.

Universities are conservative entities, where rapid change is difficult to effect. That can limit the amount of damage incurred by incompetent leaders, but it also prevents effective ones from making positive changes.

Constantly shifting priorities and visions have left our university adrift. We have had a clear focus on improving graduation rates and reducing time-to-graduation — required for accreditation and public funding — so we’ve made progress in those areas. Nonetheless, every year or two, the faculty is expected to emphasize a different pedagogical approach, assessment strategy, or curricular innovation. Professors tend to ignore those new initiatives, convinced that new provosts will leave very soon anyway and their ideas will be dropped rather promptly. It’s a vicious cycle that makes it even more difficult for new administrations to effect change.

As faculty members, how can we deal with an administrative merry-go-round?

For starters: document, document, document. Any kind of arrangement you’ve made with a dean or provost cannot be durable unless it’s in writing. That applies to start-up expenses, space allocation, teaching and workload, administrative support, hiring priorities, and anything else involving limited resources.

While the university exists to serve students, the faculty and staff are the only ones who plan to stick around for more than a few years. We decide what our community is. When we get new administrators, senior faculty members must educate them about the campus culture and mission. We must balance skepticism about new initiatives with the reality that we need these short-timers on board to get things done. That requires compromise on our part, and being able to talk their language. Even if they keep shifting the goalposts, it’s up to us to make sure that we’re still playing the same game year after year. Or something like that.

Is there a way to halt this perennial starvation of administrative focus on our campus? Perhaps we should hire people who genuinely want to see through the changes they start. We could hire someone whom we already trust, who already shares our vision for the campus. How is that possible?

For starters, we could stop bringing in carpetbaggers, and hire people who have already demonstrated a commitment to our university. Maybe that’s why our interim provosts have been better — because they know our campus and haven’t kept one eye on plans to jump ship.

Our new provost seems more invested in our campus than the previous ones, and he seems to be good for us. Will we be able to keep him? Only time will tell.

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