“ A necessary intermediate step on the way to effective independence is effective interdependence.”
– Kenneth Bruffee, Collaborative Learning
For better or worse, educational institutions change leadership in today’s world with some frequency, and new presidents commonly replace members of their leadership circle, hiring individuals from outside the institution more aligned with the new presidents’ goals, styles, and strengths. Changing academic leadership is risky business, to be sure, and the resulting transitions are not easy – for anyone.
At our own institution, we just made one such change – replacing an academic dean with a provost. After the departure of the academic dean mid-year and the appointment of an interim provost (well-known to the relatively new president), we set about searching for a permanent provost.
The process resulted in both the new provost and the president learning a good deal about how working together from the onset can make these transitions a positive experience – for the existing leadership team, for faculty, for students, for the larger college and local community, and for each other. Of course, we have made our share of mistakes and we are sure we will make more. But, we hope that some of the lessons we learned may be useful to the many other institutions making similar changes.
Lesson One: Know What the Title Means During, not After, the Search
Despite the similarity in titles within academia, their meanings can differ quite dramatically from institution to institution. Indeed, the responsibilities and roles of an academic dean and a provost can vary significantly. Since most academic deans and provosts come to the new institution from another college or university, there is not always an immediate or easy understanding of the new institution’s academic landscape.
At our institution, at least on this score, there was alignment – because of how the search process evolved. With the departure of the Academic Dean mid-year and the decision to hire a provost going forward, the president wrote an essay that was posted on the college Web site  about the difference between an academic dean and a provost and why a provost, in particular, was being hired. That essay was originally written to provide institutional transparency, but it was made available to job candidates. The essay’s existence facilitated conversations with candidates that otherwise might not have taken place about how we perceived our respective and collective roles, exploring similarities and differences in thinking from the very beginning.
In our situation, both of us (the president and the successful candidate) agreed that even though an academic dean and a provost share some of the same duties, the jobs differ in fundamental ways. For example, while each has the responsibility for ensuring excellence in the classroom, the provost has the added responsibility of creating and narrating the story of the institution’s intellectual vitality – not just internally, but externally as well. We were searching, then, for an individual who had a developed and creative educational philosophy as well as the capacity to implement change. We needed a person with strong communication skills who had keen interest and experience participating in academic and community-based activities statewide and nationally. This mutual understanding enabled us to set priorities more quickly and to identify opportunities within the institution and within the larger civic and academic communities.
Bottom line: The search process (planned and executed well) can make the transition easier. It’s also, we realized, more effective to avoid standard “pablum” job descriptions that mask deeper institutional thinking.
Lesson Two: Start Working Before Employment Begins
Typically, new provosts need to transition from their previous employers (resolving the final details of a semester and identifying issues still to be handled) and then settle into new employment in relatively short order. This is not simply a matter of moving offices. Often, successful candidates need to move geographically. They often need to find a temporary or permanent place to live, employment for one’s partner or spouse, appropriate schools for one’s children, a veterinarian for one’s pets, and, in our case, immediate (though non-life threatening) surgical care! Even in the best of circumstances, accomplishing these tasks is not easy.
We eased that transition through several mechanisms. First, even before officially starting, the new provost started receiving e-mails – keeping him in the loop about what was happening on campus, including issues being addressed by senior leadership and events that were in the offing on and off campus. Indeed, the provost actively participated in many e-mail exchanges, offering thoughts and suggestions, working with the interim provost on topics that were on the horizon.
But, there were two moments that were particularly important. The new provost participated in a previously arranged faculty retreat, even speaking at the beginning of the day-long event about pedagogical practice that can bring about an engaged classroom community. Then, the new provost participated in Commencement and its related activities, marching with the faculty, meeting and greeting trustees, graduates, parents, alums and faculty. In short, even before his official start date, the new provost was part of the institution.
Several other planned occurrences also helped the transition: The new provost and his wife stayed at the president’s guest cottage, participating in events, having dinner, and just engaging in conversation -- about life, about books, about education. These opportunities made what can be a difficult transition easier.
Bottom Line: Institutions do not stop functioning because important positions are vacant. Newly hired members of the community often feel they need to run just to catch up when they arrive – and they are not wrong. It is best to start the job, even before it officially begins, and to spend time on campus. (This is something the new president wished she had done more effectively before she started.)
Lesson Three: Set Priorities but Don’t Rush Results
Usually, the hiring of a new provost suggests that, institutionally, things were not completely synchronous with the previous personnel and hence there is much to do and, at least in the eyes of a president, quickly. Most presidents have a list of things that need to be accomplished (in our case, the list exceeded 40 items – clearly not all doable at once!). The hard question has been determining how the president and new provost arrive at a consensus rapidly about what to accomplish and when. Aye, there’s the rub.
At the most fundamental level, we both appreciate the absolute need to prepare a new generation of learners by grounding them in the liberal arts and sciences and preparing them for careers after their years in college. Our vision is to create an environment in which a wide range of learners can achieve success and to give our students the tools they need to launch a lifetime of careers, a love of learning and the capacity to lead in the workplace and in the community. Importantly, if we are successful, we will be creating a replicable model for small, private, non-elite liberal arts colleges. This alignment came about in the hiring process and in the early time spent together meeting and talking through our shared goals.
While there was an immediate recognition our philosophies were consistent, we agreed that we each would and should carve out our own ways of articulating this goal.
What was much harder was determining what had to be done and, more importantly, what could be done short and longer term. Quite rightly, the new provost determined that the “turn on the spigot” approach was not manageable – there were ideas flowing everywhere but insufficient time to process each new concept while preparing for the start of the academic year. And so, by agreement, the president agreed to step back a bit -- to give the new provost some time to process and plan.
What emerged was spectacular. The new provost, working with senior leadership, developed a stronger academic presence for our New Student Orientation, promulgated an improved search process for hiring new faculty (full-time and part-time), developed programs for the opening Academic Convocation and for Constitution Day, and created a memo to the faculty explaining all the forthcoming activities and the ways in which we were thinking about them. Two new task forces were created, both exploring distinct new issues of importance in the academic and residential life on campus, and appointments to each were made. But, importantly, mobilization of the committees was delayed by design -- to permit us to do what needed to be done immediately but recognizing the many important issues on the platter.
It is also important for the president and the provost to be candid with one another and to remind each other that even the greatest of accomplishments take great time and much effort. We developed a shorthand language for this: “Rome.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we cannot transform education in a day either. That does not mean we shouldn’t keep pressing ahead and working faster because we are in a small institution that is relatively nimble. But, we need to pause now and again – there are no shortcuts and change that lasts takes time.
Bottom Line: Remember Rome.
Lesson Four: Setting Aside Time to Think and Brainstorm
The deep thinking about an institution and its educational goals, particularly if they involve institution-wide change, cannot be accomplished through a single conversation (or two or three). Before there can be a campus-wide conversation, there needs to be some serious dialogue between the president and the provost. Once we realized the kinds of issues we needed to consider, we agreed to set aside time to reflect and brainstorm about the institution and what we are trying to achieve – collectively. These are not conversations to be had on the fly, amid last minute hiring of faculty and student registration issues. These are conversations that happen slowly and deliberately, that occur at set times and less formally.
The best strategy we employed as we prepared for these conversations was to listen and to support each other’s idea generation that accompanies broader thinking. We shared articles and books we were reading; we passed ideas along via e-mail; we questioned and probed others on and off campus. We wrote a preliminary roadmap as a starting point. We have not yet articulated our new vision fully but we are walking down that road – together – recognizing the importance of the time it takes to learn about a culture, think about its realistic future and identify pathways for success.
Bottom Line: Don’t forgo the opportunity to think. Set aside the time to do that. It is time well spent – even when schedules are overwrought.
Lesson Five: Keep a Sense of Humor, Watch Baseball and Breathe Deeply
There have been times when even the mutual support and understanding still do not eliminate the frustration that results from the enormity of the tasks ahead and the pace at which change can occur -- at least within a small institution. It is OK for the new provost to tell the president to curb e-mailing at midnight just a wee bit!
At these times, it is also important to call upon a sense of humor. In addition, we have found it important to develop the ability to step back, relax, and smile tasks that all high-level leaders and managers must refine and develop. It is important for the president and provost to watch baseball or the Olympics, listen to good music, see a play, take a walk, visit a museum, read a book or a poem, whether together, alone, with their own spouses or as a collective foursome. These are all opportunities to learn, too – and to share ideas and thoughts.
Bottom Line: The work place should be a place where we all thrive -- as professionals and people.
Changing leadership and members of the senior leadership team is not easy. Indeed, worrying about it keeps some of us up at night. All things considered, we have done remarkably well at making the transition as smooth as possible in the past three months but some of what we did (and did well) was the product of instinct or good timing. Other aspects of what we accomplished were the result of a collaboration that was ongoing even though we were working apart. It made the transition to work as leaders with individual roles much easier.
Reflecting on our actions and the lessons learned will, we hope, help others in similar situations. We can both safely say that they would have helped us, too.
That said, now that we have identified some strategies for getting transitions right, we are hoping that we do not have to use these lessons again any time soon!
Albert DeCiccio is the new provost at Southern Vermont College. Karen Gross is the still relatively new president of Southern Vermont College.