The Heavy Lifters

At meeting of provosts of small private colleges, academic officers are challenged on budgets, student learning and their ever-expanding portfolios.
November 4, 2008

SEATTLE -- With a rumination on the historical genesis and the current state of cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiah -- in his typically eloquent, even lyrical way -- did his level best Monday to get his audience of several hundred provosts of private colleges to think about the big picture. For a few moments, the one-time chemists and literature professors and anthropologists attending the Council of Independent Colleges' Institute for Chief Academic Officers here listened as the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University led them through the sort of intellectual inquiry, laced with Latin and German and interspersed with pop culture references, that many of them themselves might have given in a classroom in the not-too-distant past.

Then, when the hour was over, it was back to the guts of their day, to day jobs: operating budgets and student learning outcomes and faculty governance and accreditation and sustainability and ... well, you get the idea.

Provosts are the heaviest of heavy lifters on many college campuses, and that is increasingly true at small private independent colleges, with presidents more and more absorbed by fund raising and focused off the campus, and provosts taking on ever-expanding roles at institutions whose own missions are becoming increasingly complex. At the CIC meeting, for instance, several people who until recently bore the title "academic vice president" or "academic dean" now had "provost" on their business card, having taken on additional duties overseeing student affairs or athletics or admissions -- or all of the above.

And even for those chief academic officers whose roles have not formally changed or expanded, it was hard not to be taken aback by the broad array of issues for which the provosts had significant if not primary responsibility on their campuses -- not just in a supervisory "the buck stops here" way, but intimately and fundamentally.

The days when academic vice presidents were primarily concerned with purely academic matters has, of course, long since passed. But the combination of their jobs' expanding portfolios and the particular moment in which this meeting took place -- with a collapsing economy creating a great deal of uncertainty for all colleges, small independent ones perhaps most of all -- imbued the meeting here with a sense that the job of the chief academic officer grows harder and more complex by the hour.

"The growing complexity in the nature of the institutions and the changing relationships with the presidents and the institutions' other vice presidents" have combined to change the job significantly, said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. "The person who's coming up through the academic ranks as the leader is still the academic leader, but is also responsible for many other things."

That was never clearer than during the "Open Forum on the Economy and Private Colleges and Universities" that was a late addition to the agenda of the meeting. If there was ever a day when such a session would have been of interest to CFO's or presidents but not to academic officers, that is no longer the case: Scores of provosts and academic vice presidents spilled out of the room as Kent John Chabotar, president of Guilford College, laid out as best he (or anyone, given the turmoil) could the possible impact of the economic downturn on higher education, and small and medium-sized independent colleges in particular.

After Chabotar engaged in a little crystal ball gazing (anticipating relatively little impact on fund raising, but potentially significant pain for "highly tuition dependent" institutions with high tuition discount rates), he asked the academic officers what their institutions had seen and done so far in response to the deteriorating economic climate.

The specificity of their answers revealed how intimately involved the academic officers are in virtually every aspect of their campus operations. Some of them were keeping virtually daily tabs on their student applications (while a few reported declines so far for next fall, quite a few others said they were seeing increases in applications from traditional-age students, leading some to speculate that students were applying far and wide with the hope of giving themselves more leverage to negotiate financial aid packages come spring). Others were reporting drops in international student enrollments. And many said that faculty members were delaying or rescinding planned retirements because their nest eggs had atrophied.

In terms of responses to the economic downturn, the academic officers reported much more angst and contingency planning for the future than dramatic steps taken so far. Some said they had suspended or deferred pension contributions and frozen salaries or searches; others had modified their workweeks to reduce employees' hours. Still others were stepping up their recruitment of adult students or creating "funds for excellence" to encourage creativity in academic programs.

The economy also came up frequently at an "open mike" session at which academic officers raised the issues most on their minds. One provost said her institution had decided to delay its official announcement about tuition -- which normally comes this month -- until March, when administrators and trustees hope the financial picture will be clearer. "In the meantime," she said, "we're going to plan conservatively based on tentative numbers and hope the situation improves."

Finances aren't the only realm of college operations in which the responsibilities of provosts have grown because of changes in the external environment. As accreditors and the federal government have ramped up pressure on colleges to ensure (and prove) that they are providing a meaningful education to students, academic officers -- as shapers of the curriculum and liaisons to the faculty -- have become the pivotal players at most institutions.

So Vincent Tinto, Distinguished University Professor of Education at Syracuse University, surely knew what he was doing when he used his keynote address to issue a gentle but pointed challenge to colleges and their faculties to take the retention of low-income students far more seriously than they do. In a speech entitled "Access Without Support Is Not Opportunity," delivered after Tinto received the CIC's Award for Academic Leadership, he bemoaned the fact that "though we have made progress in providing low-income students increased access to higher education, we have been less successful in increasing their attainment of four-year degrees. If anything, the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students has increased over time."

He urged the institutional leaders to "stop tinkering at the margins of institutional academic life and make enhancing student success the linchpin about which they organize their activities."

Although Tinto didn't come right out and say it, the implication was clear: If colleges are going to do that, chief academic officers will have to be at the center of it -- as is true of an ever-increasing number of things these days.


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