Five years ago, I contributed a piece to Inside Higher Ed in which I shared advice for new provosts based on my 10 years of work at that position. It was my hope that the advice would be helpful to new provosts embarking on their new administrative journeys and would help them avoid some of the pitfalls that can often derail a successful tenure as a chief academic officer. In that piece, I shared five points:
1. Be wary of those individuals who are the first to make an appointment with you.
2. Be sure you research the history of any initial request (for anything) you receive.
3. Resist the temptation to demonstrate that you are a “strong leader” by making big decisions too soon.
4. Think of yourself as “institutional gravity.”
5. Go home.
Now, five years later, as I conclude my 15th year as provost, I find myself wondering how those new provosts have fared. The world of higher education has certainly changed in the past five years, and the challenges of effectively leading an academic program have increased many times over. The financial situation during the last five years has left many of us wondering about the future of our institutions. Words and phrases like “unsustainable,” “rising discount rates and declining net tuition revenue,” “structural budget deficits,” and “restructuring” have become common elements of our vernacular.
Votes of no confidence have increasingly dotted the landscape of higher education as faculty express their frustration with financial constraints and the lack of momentum and/or shared vision for their institutions. In short, the job of the chief academic officer, which many claim to be the most difficult in higher education, has become even more difficult. So, if you are still out there, doing your best to lead in difficult times, I thought I might share a few new observations with you based on my experience over the last five years. Granted, you likely have already learned many of these things on your own. But just in case you haven’t, or if you are someone who may be considering a provost position, here a few other pieces of advice I would like to share with you:
Read any prospectus for a presidential or provost position and you will find the term “shared governance.” While the concept of shared governance has always been an essential element of any college campus, five years of budget reductions and shaky financial footing have brought about even greater interest on the part of faculty, staff, and students in the decision-making processes. Finding ways to engage the campus community in shared governance is important and necessary, but it does have its challenges. You should always remember that shared governance does not always mean shared accountability.
In the academic sphere, the accountability is all yours, no matter how shared the decision-making process was. And it is rare that a system of shared governance will consistently yield results that are satisfactory to everyone. Shared governance is essential – but not always perfect.
Transparency is a very important concept in higher education today (again, read any prospectus if you need proof). It is important for you to be transparent in your decision-making processes and to demonstrate that you are able to communicate the reasons for your decisions effectively (more on that in a minute). You should always be willing and able to share with the campus community the information that is shaping the difficult decisions you are making.
Keep in mind, however, that transparency can become a challenge when you start to show people things they don’t necessarily want to see. For many of us who thought our financial challenges were “cyclical” rather than “structural,” we probably shielded our faculty, staff, and students from the cold, hard facts, thinking that surely things were going to get better on their own. For those of us at institutions facing the need for dramatic change, sharing that information for the first time can be a bit sobering, and not always pleasant.
We all know that clear and consistent communication is an essential element of effective leadership, yet you may find that people will question your ability as a communicator. Keep in mind that the difference between effective communication and ineffective communication occasionally has nothing to do with actual process, but more with the content of the message. When people are hearing the things they want to hear it is often the case that they will perceive the communication to be effective. But, when they are hearing things they don’t want to hear, they may perceive the communication to be ineffective, even if the communication process is excellent. So, always strive to communicate effectively, but be prepared to hear that you haven’t. If this happens, just be patient and try again. Eventually the message will get through.
Doing Good Work
For many provosts, there is chance that you may feel a bit underappreciated. You may feel that the good work you do goes unnoticed and positive feedback is in limited supply. You may have reached the point of asking yourself whether doing good work is even worth the effort.
The answer, of course, is that it is indeed worth the effort and there are two reasons why. First, it is your job to do good work. You have a responsibility and a commitment to your institution to give your best effort, all of the time. Second, and perhaps more importantly, doing good work makes you feel better about yourself and the work you are doing. Knowing that you have done your job well, whatever the project or challenge might be, will lift your spirits and bolster your confidence more than anything else you can do – even if it goes unnoticed or is unappreciated.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Over the past five years, it is likely that your institution has experienced some form of turmoil. Perhaps there has been a vote of no confidence in the administration or announcements of budget cuts and layoffs – or both. When events like this occur, they can create chaos within a campus community that make life challenging for everyone. Schisms between faculty and the administration or between faculty and staff or even between faculty and faculty are likely to emerge. Factions and alliances are formed and trust is destroyed.
It is in these moments that you can best serve your institution by adhering to the motto, “Keep Calm and Carry On” (even though you probably would rather “Freak Out and Throw Things”). Human beings cannot tolerate chaos for long periods of time and will slowly begin to gravitate toward sanity and calm. You need to be one of those sane and calm people. At a particularly chaotic time on our campus, I purchased 20 “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters and put several up in my office. I kept the others in a drawer and when someone would ask me about the poster, I would offer to give them one. It was great to walk into someone else’s office and see that poster – and know that they, too, were trying to keep calm and carry on. Things on campus are much better now, and I have taken all the posters down from my office -- but I did keep a few in a drawer, just in case.
Stay Connected With Students
Students are the reason our institutions exist, and you need to spend as much time as you can with them. If you have not found a way to teach a class, as I have had the privilege of doing in my time as provost, you need to find a way to make that happen. Spending time in the classroom with your students is the best way to keep the importance of your work (and the challenges that go along with it) in the proper perspective. Those hours that you spend with your students will refocus and energize you. I have also found that playing an active role in academic advising has a similar effect.
But, if you can’t do those things, do what you can. Go to a student presentation or sit and talk with students in the cafeteria. Anything that you can do to connect with your students is sure to remind you of why you wanted to become a university administrator – to play a key role in transforming the lives and minds of your students.
So, there you have it: a few more pieces of advice based on five very challenging years for all of us. If you have made it to the five-year mark, it is likely that you have done well and that your prospects for the future are good. If you are considering a provost position, you should know that the joys associated with it are many and far outweigh the challenges.
Finally, if I may recycle one piece of advice that is as true now as it was five years ago: it is still a great idea to give yourself permission to just go home from time to time. And when you do, you might even try to unplug (admittedly, I have trouble following my own advice on this one). I wish you all the best with the joys and challenges that lie ahead.
Jim Hunt is provost of Southwestern University, a private liberal arts college in Georgetown, Texas.
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