10 Years as a Provost

August 24, 2009

A little over 10 years ago, I relinquished my responsibilities as a full-time faculty member at Southwestern University to serve as provost and dean of the faculty. While I often jokingly refer to this moment as my “move to the dark side,” it is has been a rewarding and interesting experience -- and one filled with innumerable challenges. Even though the 10 years have passed quickly, I still have vivid memories of my first year in the position, and would like to offer the following pieces of advice to those who are embracing one of these positions for the first time.

  • Be wary of those individuals who are the first to make an appointment with you. First, I should acknowledge that what I’m about to say is a generalization, but, as with all generalizations, there is basis in fact. I found that the people who were among the first to set an appointment with me were those who wanted to see things done “their way” and were eager to have me understand that “their way” was the best way (of course). Be sure to listen to them carefully, but take equal caution in dealing with what they may suggest to you. Remember, it is only their perspective and you will do well to ensure that you have investigated all the perspectives on this particular issue.
  • Be sure you research the history of any initial request (for anything) you receive. This is really an extension of my first point, but is worth further consideration. Among the first individuals to meet with me were those faculty and staff who had a special request or an innovative new idea for me to consider. As I researched their request or idea, I found that they had pitched the same thing to each of my predecessors and the answer had always been (you guessed it) no -- and usually for very good reason. My assumption was that they felt it was worth trying again -- especially with the new person -- but you should resist the impulse to say “yes” and do your historical research. Bad ideas usually do not get better with age.
  • Resist the temptation to demonstrate that you are a “strong leader” by making big decisions too soon. I learned very quickly that many faculty, when frustrated by the processes of shared governance, will press you to make a decision on an issue because, and I quote, “if you were really a strong leader, you would do... .” Keep in mind that, more often than not, the strong leader they want is the strong leader who makes decisions with which they agree -- certainly, not decisions with which they would disagree. Shared governance and deliberative processes are very important in the academy -- and are often slow, messy and contentious. Intervention on your part should be done judiciously and sparingly, certainly not at the behest of faculty with specific agendas who, as a result, are critical of your ability to make the decisions they support happen.
  • Think of yourself as “institutional gravity.” If you think of the qualities of gravity, then you have a fairly good image of what you should do in your position. You help hold things in place so that they do not escape the institutional orbit and you are invisible. It is your job to ensure that faculty and staff ideas and initiatives (and, sometimes, those of your senior colleagues) are firmly grounded in the institution’s mission and identity. This does not mean that your job is to hold things “back,” but rather to help hold things within the scope of the institution’s goals (and, in some cases, within the realm of reality). Your institution’s primary mission is the academic experience and it is your responsibility to keep this in the forefront of all decision making. Most of this work will be done behind the scenes and, in some instances, other people may even get the credit (thus, the invisibility). But, like gravity, you will have done your job and all will be well within the universe.
  • Go Home. Probably the best piece of advice I received in my first year came from an experienced dean at another institution within our consortium (by the way, fellow deans at institutions like yours are probably the best resource for ideas and support). Here is what he said: “Whatever is on your desk at the end of the day will still be there in the morning. Go home at a reasonable hour and deal with it tomorrow.” He was exactly right. There will never be a shortage of things to address, so take care of yourself, be sure you have balance in your life, and go home at the end of the day.

When I began this position 10 years ago, I was told by someone at another institution that the role of the chief academic officer was the most difficult position in higher education. After 10 years, I still cannot say for certain if this is true or not, but I do know it is a position filled with both challenges and opportunities -- and I have yet to find it to be mundane or boring. While there are many other bits of advice I could share, I hope these five points will provide some helpful guidance.

Bio

Jim Hunt is provost and dean of the faculty at Southwestern University, a liberal arts college in Georgetown, Texas.

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