Welcome, Now Start Slashing

Hiring provosts who will be immediately charged with budget-cutting presents dilemma for presidents, who debate whether task is best suited for someone new.
October 22, 2010

Troy Paino spent the summer soul searching.

Newly installed president at Truman State University, Paino had ascended to the position from the provost slot in May. While he had hoped to find a replacement provost in short order, an accelerated search failed, leaving Paino with the summer to decide whether it was really a good idea to hire a new provost in the first place. In the near term, after all, the consuming task of the job would be to start slicing the university’s budget.

“It’s my hope that whenever I bring a provost here that I develop a relatively long-term relationship with [that person],” he said. “I don’t want to bring in a cutter who will use all their political capital and be out on the job market in two or three years.”

By August, Paino had pretty well made his decision: there would be no new search, at least for now, and he’d ask a veteran dean to hold the post for the next few painful years. As interim provost, Richard Coughlin will be working with faculty and administrators under the assumption that Truman State will see the legislature cut between 10 percent and 20 percent of the university’s budget next year.

“I think it takes some pressure off [for the next provost] if we really deal with some of the problems, and when someone comes in we’ll be in better fiscal shape,” says Coughlin, who has served as dean of libraries and museums since 1995.

The economic downturn presents a stark dilemma for colleges and universities seeking provosts, and presidents are somewhat split on whether to move forward. On the one hand, bringing in someone with fresh eyes who’s not attached to any sacred cows on campus makes sense. On the other hand, thrusting new chief academic officers into situations where they may be immediately tasked with cutting programs, increasing workloads or laying off employees sounds to some like a recipe for burnout or failure.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, says he’s heard of several college chiefs weighing the merits of new provosts against the security of an internal interim appointment. But this isn’t necessarily a new debate, he explains. Even in good times, college leaders embarking on new initiatives that may ruffle feathers have the same ambivalence about who's best suited for the task.

“It could be awkward [for a new provost], but understand that no college or university that is contemplating a major budget-cutting program is going to hire a provost without discussing that that is the nature of the challenge in the next few years,” Ekman says. “The person going into that job is going in with their eyes wide open.”

At North Carolina State University, where the loss of federal stimulus dollars is expected to create a major budget hole, a provost search is moving into its last phase. Finalists have been identified for campus visits, and Chancellor Randy Woodson hopes to have an offer on the table before Thanksgiving.

North Carolina State is bracing for a state budget reduction of about 10 percent, or $50 million, and Woodson says he’s placing a premium on the financial and academic experience a new provost could bring to the university.

“When I say we could potentially have a 10 percent budget cut, we can’t apply that uniformly,” he says. “There are key areas of the university that will have to be supported to ensure we remain competitive. I’ve got to have a provost that is in a position to quickly understand the academic environment of the institution and can work with me and the CFO to develop strategies for financing this place.”

While some are hesitant to bring on a new provost during a period of serious fiscal challenges, Woodson says he didn’t give any thought to delaying.

“The provost position, I think it’s such a critical position for the university; I just didn’t feel I could leave that in limbo forever,” he says. “It may be difficult to fill the position in this environment, but you know we’re not alone. Most of the candidates we’re talking to are from other states that have as much of a challenge as we do.”

To some extent, North Carolina State’s provost hire represents a fresh start for an institution that is still replacing key leaders who resigned in a political scandal. Woodson was named chancellor in January, following the resignation of James L. Oblinger, who stepped down from the post amid outcry about the hiring of former Gov. Mike Easley’s wife, Mary Easley. Larry Nielsen, the former provost, also resigned during the controversy.

“It’s ancient history, because this institution has moved on and the state has moved on,” Woodson says of the controversy. “Hiring a provost for me is about continuing to assemble the team to move this place forward.”

As in any economic environment, outside circumstances can interfere with a provost search. Take the University of Colorado at Boulder, for instance, where Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano recently chose to waive a national search for a provost. The university had already named Robert Sternberg, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, as the sole finalist for the position. But when Sternberg chose instead to take the provost job at Oklahoma State University, DiStefano appointed Colorado’s current interim provost to a fixed term ending in 2013 – a move “designed to provide stable campus leadership over the next few years,” DiStefano said in a news release.

While stability may be a priority for colleges having budget struggles, a new provost can be the key to moving forward during a difficult time, says Jan Greenwood, president and chief executive officer of Greenwood/Asher & Associates, an executive search firm. A college undergoing budget cuts might be mistaken to seek out a “slash and burn” administrator, however, and should instead be looking for someone with a history of building consensus amid challenges, she says.

“One could paint a picture where you went out and got one of those [slash and burn] types and brought them in and created absolute havoc,” Greenwood says. “But when you hire someone who has an excellent reputation working with people and working through tough, tough issues, then that’s a different proposition.”

Rafael L. Bras, who took over as provost of the Georgia Institute of Technology in September, says he thinks his outside perspective is an asset. Georgia Tech is preparing for state cuts of between 4 and 10 percent, but Bras says that downsizing plans didn’t dominate his interview process and he sees the institution very much in growth mode.

“The advantage is you have a different set of glasses through which you look at the issues, and no assumptions or preconceptions of the way things should be done or should come out,” Bras says. “You’re not afraid of asking, 'Why are we doing it this way?' ”


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