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Provost Primer

A new book helps chief academic officers find their way
University Business, September 2015

One of the more demanding jobs in higher ed belongs to the provost—the chief academic officer. With ever-widening fields of responsibility, the position often consists largely of on-the-job training. James Martin and James Samels, authors of UB’s online “Future Shock” column, expect their new book will help change that. The Provost’s Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) is a collection of essays from veteran CAOs who offer perspective on many issues these administrators confront.

“The provost has assumed more responsibility,” says Martin. “Fundraising, managing the budget, getting involved with admissions—along with the very standard responsibilities of curriculum development, faculty professional development.” A former provost himself, Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College in Massachusetts. Samels is the CEO and president of The Education Alliance and the founder of Samels & Associates, a law firm concentrating in higher education law.

As the book makes clear, the provost job can be extremely varied and demanding. It’s not for everyone.

Martin: It’s sometimes what a person in higher ed thinks of as the pinnacle, the top of the pyramid. And once he or she gets there, they see it’s a tremendous amount of work, including drudgery. Depending on the institution, large or small, the president and the faculty will place on the provost’s desk varying kinds of responsibilities. The faculty will push across a lot of things they believe they can’t resolve themselves. And the president will push across to the provost a lot of issues, many of them very complex, that the president doesn’t believe are his or her responsibility. They end up caught in the middle between those two groups, and it is often the case that neither party is satisfied fully.

Samels: It’s the decision-making node of the institution when it’s done right. But it can definitely be a baneful existence. Half the people say, “What took you so long to make the decision?” The other half complains, “You’re going too fast.” So yes, it requires people skills, but it requires substance in every discipline. You have to have an intimate understanding of the academic policymaking process, and you’ve got to be patient to listen to all sides and somehow make some sense out of this thing at the end of the day.

Many of the essays in the book hinge on the provost being something of a shadow president.

Martin: With the president’s permission, of course. One of the big questions a provost must answer is what does he or she aspire to? There tend to be two primary groups that we’ve identified over the last 30 years. First is the “president in waiting.” No matter how hard he or she is working as provost, you can really tell they are on a trajectory toward being the president. The other group, who are just gritty in the trenches, are provosts willing to take on a lot of work and will say, “No. I really don’t want to be president, thank you.”

Samels: The thing we’ve been hearing more recently is a shared-management or shared-decision-making arrangement, where the president doesn’t seem to be an administrative, skills-based management person. They rely on the provost as the faculty’s academic colleague.

It’s a powerful position. This is someone who holds a lot of keys.

Martin: The key point we want to make is that the provost is taking on more responsibility on the campus—he or she is involved in institutional rankings, fundraising, admissions, budgets and so on. Those are things that 25 or 30 years ago were not really in the provost’s purview. And don’t forget athletics and athletic compliance. A number of presidents have seen such a gnarly situation there. They’ve put that on the provost as well. And often, provosts have little experience with these areas.

Why add yet another responsibility to an already overflowing plate?

Samels: If you want something done in higher education, see a busy person. Provosts are very busy people, but they can get business done. Provosts are decision-makers. Everyone passes the buck to them—the president, the other VPs. So the provost might as well deal with it upfront, because they’re going to have to deal with it if it’s screwed up later.

Martin: And because it’s an academic institution, I think there is sort of a “gold standard” that, rightly or wrongly, those people attribute to the provost. The institutional community wants to make sure that the provost has signed off on athletics and compliance issues because, to paraphrase Harry Truman, “The buck stops with the provost.”

We’ve seen dramatic changes not just in how education is delivered, but also in what we call the typical student. How has that changed the provost’s job?

Samels: It’s a much more competitive world. The majority of American students this year will have an experience at a technical or community college. The provost is responsible for building out the academic community. They’ve got to be nimble. Most provosts wouldn’t think about not competing with a community college. “How about we do a partnership with them and we do their baccalaureate degree completion program?” There, the provost has scored big-time net revenues. The faculty doesn’t want to lose their labs, so they love that. So the provost has transformed a competitor into a collaborator.

Martin: As we said earlier, provosts are taking on more responsibilities, and this is another one, leading the initiative to partner with other institutions off-campus. The other institution may not always be geographically proximate, but there’s a complementarity.

Full-time faculty are increasingly being displaced by adjuncts. What does that mean to the provost?

Martin: We see provosts working with college attorneys more than ever, and the issue is accountability. But to be fair, the adjuncts will often work at multiple institutions that have multiple calendars, multiple grading systems, multiple faculty expectations, and they get stretched to the limit. The provost has to have good relationships with all the department chairs because they are the front line in expecting and ensuring accountability from a rising group of adjuncts.

You wrote that one of the provost’s roles is explaining and defending tuition increases in detail. That’s a job where even many presidents fall down.

Martin: You’re right, it’s not done very well. Students and parents are the drivers of wanting the institution to do a better job of explaining. Presidents, I think, have defaulted to asking the provost to articulate how a graduate from a program in philosophy, for example, is going to be able to find a job. So what can they do? One thing they can do is hold weekly meetings with the CFO to become more budget-literate, to translate admissions data, budget management issues and graduate employment records into a simple explanation. It’s something that cuts across the entire institution and should be owned by more than just a provost, but they often are the ones who hold that responsibility.

Is there any push for a national organization to represent these people?

Martin: There are smaller groups around the country. For example, the Council of Independent Colleges has one of the largest gatherings of chief academic officers in the country. The SUNY system also has a chief academic officers annual meeting, as does the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. And there are clusters at the community college level, but there isn’t a national organization for chief academic officers. Remember, too, the job description often varies by the size of the institution. A provost at a research university has different responsibilities than a community college vice president for instruction.

How do you see the job changing?

Samels: The provost most often comes from the faculty, but the new skills are not about managing the faculty. It’s about raising the image and reputation and, ultimately, fundraising.

Martin: As this current generation of provosts retires, you have people receiving the appointment at a younger age.As the job grows in complexity, I think you’ll also see candid discussions about salary. I think you are going to start to see provosts asking for significantly higher salaries, which is always a hot button. It’s really going to be an exciting time in the next 20 years or so for the provost.

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