Jumping in the Deep End

Terri E. Givens describes her decision, six years after returning to a faculty job, to become a provost.

May 22, 2015

Nearly six years ago, I wrote my first column for Inside Higher Ed, discussing the reasons behind my decision to step down as vice provost at the University of Texas at Austin. It was a difficult decision, but looking back at it now, I know I made the right one. Although it took longer than I expected to get promoted to full professor, I am very glad that I was able to finish my book and several other research projects. As I have written in this column, the last five years have been difficult on the family front, losing my mother and several other close family members.

It has also been a difficult time at the University of Texas, with budget cuts and political battles playing out in the pages of this news site and others. Given that I know many of the protagonists personally, it has been hard watching the damage that has been done to the university, and it is my hope that UT will be moving beyond the political battles and that the new president will be able to focus on moving the university forward.

I will not be a part of the next chapter at UT. I recently wrote another resignation letter, this time leaving my promotion to full professor behind to become the next provost at Menlo College. It is hard to believe that it has been nearly six years since I left administration. Over that time I often thought that I might not return to administration. However, life as a professor/researcher was not always what I had expected at this stage of my career. As with many of my colleagues, particularly at public universities, raises were few and far between, and research funding was harder to get. Although my publications were well received, I was reaching the end of a research agenda and not sure where I would turn next. I knew a textbook was in my future, but beyond that it wasn’t clear to me what my next project should be.

So it was about a year ago that I made the decision to pursue an administrative job again. With my next book slated to come out that summer and my promotion to full professor assured, I considered my options, keeping in mind that I had a husband, a teenager and a preteen to consider as I explored possible job options.

My search initially focused on vice provost and dean positions, and I went back and forth across the country in my bid to find the next stop in my career. It was finally down to a couple of positions, and as fate would have it, both were in Silicon Valley -- an ideal location for my husband, who as an electrical engineer works in semiconductor chip design. It would also bring us closer to his family in the Bay Area and back to the West Coast, where my family lives. My boys will be changing schools this fall anyway, the younger one entering middle school and the older one starting high school. I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity for myself or my family. It became clear to me after interviewing which job was a better fit for me, and I have always said that I would like to be a provost, although I wasn’t necessarily expecting to have that opportunity at this point in my career.

I learned several important lessons from being on the job market. Although administrative interviews are similar to faculty interviews, preparation is even more important. It’s necessary to get a sense of the college or university and what they are looking for in a leader. But it is also important to get a sense of how you would fit into the particular job -- the job description isn’t always a good description of what is expected of a job candidate. Fit is a two-way street, and there were several jobs I didn’t apply for or withdrew from, because I knew I wasn’t the right candidate for the job.

I’m actually grateful for the many interviews I had, even when I didn’t move forward in the process. I learned a great deal from every interview, particularly how I responded to particular questions or situations. I learned to focus on my strengths and realized that I couldn’t be all things to all interviewers.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned over the past few years is that I have to stop saying how lucky I am. It has been much more than luck -- I have worked very hard to get to this point in my career. I have always been grateful to my mentors for their support, and in particular for my husband, who has been a solid supporter as we both balance family and work. However, it is very important as an African-American woman that I acknowledge my own role in my career success.

Rather than lucky, I consider myself blessed to be able to pursue a career that I love, and to be returning to the Bay Area, where my academic career started -- I’ll be just down the road from my alma mater, Stanford University.


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