12 Tough Questions to Ask Yourself Before Becoming a Provost

Full vitae questions

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By Richard Badenhausen

Through a series of odd circumstances that sometimes beset academic institutions, I found myself holding two administrative appointments last year, as both interim provost of my college and dean of its honors college. Doing double duty over the course of 14 months turned out to be a good primer on the stark differences between those two jobs.

With a new administrative hiring season upon us — no doubt altered from the norm by the Covid-19 crisis — some deans will be considering a move into the provost’s office. For deans or anyone else mulling a career in campus administration, here are my reflections on those two distinct roles.

First, a few caveats: Every campus climate is different, and the manner in which work gets done is typically a function of institutional culture, leadership, and history. I write from the perspective of an administrator at a small, private, independent college during a time of great change and financial pressure. But my experience is relevant to a wide swath of higher education. And I’ve intentionally emphasized the more challenging aspects of the provost’s job because they can help candidates think honestly about “fit.”

That said, here are the areas of difference that I felt most acutely, posed in the form of 12 questions to ask yourself when considering a move from dean to provost.

How comfortable are you at knowing a little about a lot of stuff? As dean of an honors college, I have a detailed grasp of most of its activities. I share similar backgrounds with faculty members, am deeply involved in discussions of curriculum and programming, and am driving most of the conversations about strategic issues. As provost, however, my portfolio covered a lot of things I knew little about: nursing accreditation, off-site Montessori labs, trends in IT security, global-learning programming, ceramics-studio equipment, competency-based education. I found myself having to get really good at asking questions, at listening carefully, and at being comfortable making decisions with much less experience in an area than I had as a dean. In fact, the scope of the provost’s job was so broad that, upon receiving word of flooding in the library basement, I assumed it was my problem to solve — only to learn later that the email had been intended for the director of plant operations, who was also named Richard.

How talented are you at apologizing? I offered more apologies as provost in the span of a year than I had in the previous decade in various roles. Granted, the numerous mea culpas were due, in part, to being new to the job. But given the scope and volume of the work, the fact that you are often operating in new territory, the significant time pressures of many decisions, and the reality that you rarely have all the information you need during those deliberations, mistakes will be made. They are an inevitable part of the job. Perfectionists, or those too proud to say “I’m sorry” (and mean it), may want to seek another line of work.

How good are you at making really hard, and often unpopular, decisions? There is a kind of clarity to most decisions I make as dean: I have a good handle on the situation, can solicit feedback, and am usually able to choose the best path forward. As provost, I was frequently trying to pick the best option from a basket of bad solutions — and then having to explain that choice without divulging much information, because of privacy concerns. If a problem can’t be solved by faculty or staff members, chairs, directors, or deans, it means that by the time it reaches the provost’s office, there is no easy resolution, even though it’s your job to bring the matter to a close.

How strong is your stomach? While I was chairing our search for a permanent provost, a search consultant said it’s become difficult to assemble a pool of qualified candidates, because people increasingly “don’t have the stomach for the job." In a single day, you could find yourself attending a morning meeting about an employee’s dismissal, having lunch with an unhappy donor, and visiting an evening service commemorating a student who has just died. During my first week on the job, I was looped into a conversation about press inquiries related to a sexual assault that had occurred at a student’s previous institution, fielded a written request from some employees that their supervisor be removed, and received notice that a faculty member in court had been found guilty of fraudulent behavior.

Can you say no? Generally speaking, while deans have to say no on occasion, provosts say no far more often, in a broader variety of ways, and to a much wider constituency — especially at institutions where resources are tight. Saying no while honoring people’s intent and making them feel heard is a crucial management skill that comes only with practice. Unfortunately, given the multiple crises we are facing, provosts will have ample opportunity to hone this talent.

Are you good at shared governance? To be a successful provost, you must live with the faculty handbook under your pillow and be willing to converse with faculty leaders openly, often, and with sincerity on topics related to campus governance. Such conversations are especially important in areas of curriculum and promotion and tenure.

How do you like to spend your evenings and weekends? Given the expansive scope of the provost’s job, the sheer volume of the work can be crushing. There’s no escaping your to-do list. You will spend most of the day in meetings and then often attend college functions at night. Meanwhile, lots of people will be emailing you to follow up on a meeting, ask for resources, look for clarification, pitch ideas, complain about a problem. During my year as provost, I received 200 to 300 work-related emails a day. I’d labor away at them into the evening, and then repeat that Sisyphean task the next day. While weekends provided a respite — and time to prepare for the next week’s meetings — the work always awaits you.

How much do you like dealing with students? As dean, I have significant interaction with undergraduates. I write letters of recommendation for them, visit classes led by talented faculty members, sit on committees with students, and even teach a class regularly. Students reach out to me looking for help to support exciting projects. As provost, I was surprised at how little my day-to-day work intersected with actual students. I created 91 email folders to manage the workflow before titling a 92nd one “Students.”

How good are you at keeping your own counsel? As dean, I sit on our dean’s council and thus have a group of thoughtful, experienced, supportive fellow deans whom I regularly call on for advice. As provost, you are a group of one, at least on your own campus, often unable to share concerns or seek advice from peers. It can be a lonely job. Granted, if you enjoy a good relationship with your president — and I did — you have someone to turn to for support (although that someone is your boss). As provost, you need to be comfortable standing alone between groups with potentially competing interests, and thus, managing both up and down.

Do you enjoy hanging out with lawyers? I happen to live with one, so my answer to that question is yes. As dean, I interact with the college’s general counsel a couple of times a year — to review a contract or complete the annual conflict-of-interest form. Yet, as provost, it seemed I had the GC on speed-dial. I quickly received a crash course in the many legal entanglements of the college: risk management, personnel complications, lawsuits, long-running disputes, board-of-trustee procedures, Title IX issues, and mind-numbing reviews of our policy documents. Get ready to lean into the law.

How healthy is your ego? As a dean advancing the causes of my academic unit, I find that the wins feel somewhat personal and are often praised publicly by the provost, president, or board. As provost, I accept that the victories are about others — individuals, academic units, and the college itself. While there is certainly validation in those successes, your primary role is to be a cheerleader of other people’s achievements. You are the ultimate generalist and your constituency is the entire institution.

There are many other differences between the roles of dean and provost, but these stood out as I toggled back and forth between the two offices every day. Many aspects of the provost’s job are deeply satisfying:

  • In concert with the president and the cabinet, you shape the strategic direction of the institution.
  • You are often advocating for very talented faculty and staff members, and students.
  • You typically lead the largest unit on campus.
  • Because of the wide scope of responsibilities, you have a wonderful opportunity to learn new skills.
  • And, because human beings are predictable, your jokes in meetings instantly become funnier as soon as you assume the provost title.

All of those positive points lead to the 12th and final question that would-be provosts must ask themselves: Are you willing to stomach the bad while savoring the good?

Richard Badenhausen is dean of the Honors College at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and immediate past president of the National Collegiate Honors Council.

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