What a Rookie Provost Learned in His First Semester

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By Mark Blegen

I’ve never really enjoyed roller coasters, at least not the theme-park variety. In my academic career, however, I’ve ridden many figurative versions: the amazing highs of a published article and impressive student presentations, the toxic lows of personnel and budget cuts, the jarring ups and downs of quick changes of direction in leadership. Last January I hopped on a new roller coaster: I moved to a new campus and became, for the first time, a provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Since then things have been up, down, fast, slow in my new post at Carroll University. Quite a ride so far, with many lessons learned. And as any good educator will do, let me tell you my conclusion first: The ride is better with friends.

Finding support networks, or at least a few people to bounce ideas off of, can be tricky as a provost hired from outside the campus. At my previous institution — first as a faculty member and then dean — I could rely on friendships and relationships nurtured over time to help me solve problems, plan strategy, or simply listen when I needed an ear.

As a newcomer, I didn’t have local support networks when I started the provostship. Or rather, I didn’t recognize that I had them upon my arrival.

Now, reflecting on my first semester on the job, I realize that I did have support networks in place — some by definition, others by structure, and one by choice.

Each proved invaluable as I navigated the culture, learned the community, and prioritized the work to be done. I’ve already found myself in situations and conversations that you just can’t make up. I’m sure provosts everywhere have similar tales and I’m equally sure that finding support networks is key for all of us.

As a faculty member I always knew the focus of my work: to teach well, engage in scholarship, and serve the campus community. Each of those roles had its own guideposts, both internal and external, that were (in hindsight at least) fairly easy to grasp. I knew when a class went well, and when it didn’t. I was acutely conscious when my research was published or rejected. I understood that I had to serve on committees both for the department and the university.

However, as I moved from faculty member to department chair to dean, my internal guideposts grew foggier and the external benchmarks moved further away.

In administration, how was I to know whether my work was going well? Leading a meeting as dean was not the same as teaching a class. And how was I to know whether the strategy we chose was the right one? We wouldn’t know for a while — sometimes years. It was a challenge to give up control and, in many cases, receive no immediate feedback on my decisions.

Likewise this year, I’ve quickly learned the first rule of provosting: Control is something I would have to live without. I could only hope, for the time being, that I was affecting our university in constructive and positive ways. As academics, we know what teaching is, we know what research is. But what are the doings of a provost? Not so sure.

A few months into the job, I decided to talk about this with the president. “I don’t have any sense of how I’m doing,” I told her. “I’m still figuring out the place and the work. I have no internal guideposts marking my way.” I wanted to be open and honest, but still felt a twinge of hesitation as we talked. The challenge of impostor syndrome is real. I didn’t want to sow doubt of my abilities in her mind.

“If you knew all of this and weren’t questioning things, I’d be worried,” the president responded. “I think being a provost is the toughest job on campus and you’ll get there. Don’t hesitate to ask me questions.”

So I exhaled. Knowing I have the support of our leader, an experienced provost herself, and that I am able to have open and honest conversations not only about my work, but about the role with her, has been a tremendous source of support during Semester 1. This relationship is key to our mutual success, and more important, key to the university’s success.

Campus was quiet my first weeks due to a mid-January start, combined with polar-vortex-canceled classes. Then, two weeks in, came the note from our faculty president, “The faculty would like to hear about how initiatives are progressing/starting this spring, and what your priorities are this semester.”

My priorities? My first priorities were to make it to campus successfully without using Google Maps and then to find my office. I responded that I’d be fine with sharing some observations but didn’t feel comfortable with stating my priorities until I heard from the faculty.

I brought exactly 22 days of experience as a provost to that first faculty meeting while the collective wisdom of the faculty represented hundreds of years. I needed to know each faculty member and learn the culture to some degree before forming anything concrete enough to share. I wanted them to join me for the ride. To that end I made it my goal to have coffee with each and every faculty member at Carroll University.

As of this writing, I’ve had 114 coffees, and besides becoming heavily caffeinated, I have become immersed in the campus, personally and professionally. Each conversation has been different — some pointed and focusing on a specific curricular characteristic, while others were broad and expansive. I learned something from each encounter, but more important, I learned about these individual faculty members who are the lifeblood of the institution. If we are going to survive and thrive together on this roller-coaster ride, we need to be in the same car.

I have always thrived on meaningful relationships. As a faculty member one of my great joys was meeting with colleagues to discuss teaching. As dean I looked forward to the weekly gathering of all the university’s deans. As a provost, you have no peers and report to one person who sits above you on the administrative hierarchy — so finding and solidifying a network of fellow theme-parkers on the provost ride can be a lonely process.

As Michael D. Watkins reminds us in his 2003 book, The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter: “New people are unknown to the organization and therefore do not have the same credibility as someone who is promoted from within. … You can do a lot to compensate for your vulnerabilities. Three basic tools are self-discipline, team building, and advice and counsel.”

With that in mind, I decided — at the urging of a mentor — to work with a coach while learning the ropes. Let me make absolutely clear: That was incredible advice and I am the better for it.

The higher the leadership ladder goes, the fewer peers you have. My coach was a provost, too, and shares her experiences as a way to help me think about mine. She asks thoughtful questions about ideas and strategies percolating in my mind. With a broad understanding of the higher-education landscape, she provides an external lens on my work at Carroll.

Finally, a lesson I learned about balancing the provostship with my personal life: You can’t do this job unless your family is on board with it.

Giving my time and energy to my campus while attempting to balance that with my family is something I have struggled with in the past and continue to do so now. The work of the provost is unending, it’s always there and it can be overwhelming. The decision to take this role, the decision to leave a known community and friends, and the decision to move our family with two young daughters was not made in a vacuum. I wouldn’t be able to manage the work without the support and drive of my partner and the hugs, both literal and figurative, from our daughters. (Fortunately, it turns out that kids do better on roller coasters than adults any day of the week.)

It’s for others to judge whether my first semester has been a success — however that is defined. But for a moment I’ll put down the impostor mask and say I know I can learn this role, I know I can do the work, and I know the ride ahead is going to be at times bumpy, terrifying, rewarding, and downright fun.

Mark Blegen is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis. He is on Twitter @pioprovost.

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