On Serving as President and Provost ... at the Same Time

Having both positions gives Susan Herbst new ideas about their roles and their relationship.

October 2, 2007

For my entire career, or at least post-tenure (when I looked up and noticed that there was an administration actually running the place), I thought the divisions of labor I perceived within higher education were as they should be. Chairs oversee departments and advocate for their colleagues, deans manage their schools and represent their colleges to alumni, donors and others. The provost watches over the budget allocation process, makes certain the various units, divisions, and colleges are coordinated, and oversees pedagogical quality, research standards, hiring, tenure, and promotion. The president is the star of any event she attends, and is on the road, raising money and representing the campus to all constituencies. The provost is largely inside, the president is outside. And while the provost mixes with donors, distinguished visitors, and legislators, his or her primary business is to mind the home front.

This division of labor sometimes defines reality, but my temporary status -- acting as president but still serving as provost – has made me question the nature of both jobs and their relationship to each other. The fairly clean partition I believed in for years is of course impossible when you hold both positions at once, and doing 'double duty" has underscored some of the gray areas and challenges associated with leadership roles. I do not believe the positions should be combined or melded -- a large or small university needs a president and a provost, without question. Everyone hopes for true and seamless teamwork, but even the closest president/provost pairs can’t help but get caught in the quandaries their administrative structure presents. This essay explores the relationship as I have to come see it, and my hope is to do so without self-pity or self-indulgence, both of which have tempted me often this past year.

To back up: In August of 2006 our president at Albany -- Kermit L. Hall -- died tragically and suddenly while on a rare vacation. Since his death, I have served as the campus "officer in charge" (a State University of New York title for someone acting as president), and provost (my regular job) as well. It has been a privilege to lead a campus of talented faculty, students, and staff. And the campus has outstanding support from our chancellor’s office, the legislature, our governor, and alumni. All is on course, as much as it could be, at a large and complicated research university.

A last note of preface is about being busy. The most common observation from everyone in my community – often made with tremendous sympathy – is that I must be unbelievably busy. It is true, but I also remind them that I have both the provost’s and president’s staffs working with me. This adds up to an awful lot of people and support. And it’s all relative, of course: I still know that my busiest and most stressful years were as a young professor with children in diapers. Getting that call from the daycare center to pick up a suddenly very ill child, 20 minutes before you are to teach a room full of undergraduates, still rates among the worst moments one can have as a professional. I thank those students for their patience, wherever they now are.

There are two areas I ponder, when reflecting on my twin roles: the nature of the division of labor between provost and president, and the texture of the “marriage” (seems the best, most complex descriptor) between the two.

Division of Labor

Good Cops and Bad Cops

Presidents and provosts like to spend money and they must; it is our favorite activity and it makes people enormously happy. New initiatives, those that will enhance the institution and forge a bold course, demand expenditure. And there are those old problems, anchors around the university’s neck, that any leader would like to see erased for good on their watch. Since the president is the most visible leader of the university, people -- from all walks of life and all corners of the world -- seek her out and advocate for a budget commitment of some sort or another. The president is asked for money more often than anyone on campus.

The president, often in a hurry, finds herself on the hot seat in front of highly engaged crowds, and without spreadsheets handy. He or she must respond delicately and diplomatically to pleas, often heart-wrenching, compelling, and urgent, but not make imprudent commitments. In some cases, the president then goes back to the provost and hands it over (“I just came from Department X, and they want Y; can you look into that?”). The provost often concludes the answer to be “no” or “can’t fund to that level”, the word is passed back officially to the advocate by the president or provost, and everyone moves on or not.

Sometimes these roles are reversed of course, when the provost takes the plea and the president declines upon hearing it. In any case, when the provost and president are the same person, the good cop/bad cop approach isn’t possible. In order not to say “no” all the time, and avoid the negativity this engenders, we ended up spreading the wealth of hard decision-making in ways I had not planned to. Our vice presidents, vice provosts, and deans stepped up magnificently, and made me realize that neither the provost or president need be the central “no” voices. In fact, I feel more strongly than ever that it is important for more administrators -- even department chairs -- to deliver bad or realistic news far more often, instead of passing it on up. I see that it is essential to great teamwork and enables the provost and president to be a more positive, like-able beings. Halfway through the year, I started to realize just how much I could depend on others to be the “bad cop”, at least occasionally, and it both saved me grief and bound us together more tightly as a team.


Development officers work daily on annual giving, alumni affairs, and gift cultivation. But the president is critical for cultivation of major gifts and building relationships with leading volunteers, who are vital in campaigns, prospecting, and broadcasting the needs of the institution.

Is the provost a fund raiser? How involved should they be? I would argue that the provost should be intimately involved in fund raising at the highest levels. There is no question that the most sophisticated donors want and need time with the CEO-equivalent -- the president. And sometimes the relationships are intimate ones, where private donor-to-president time is essential. But I urge the president to bring the provost in at an early date, and to meet the donors, even if briefly.

The reason is that the funds we want -- with the exception of athletics and a few other needy areas -- are for the academic growth of the university, and here the provost is expert. It does little good to raise money for something academic that the university simply is not in a position to do well: We can’t raise funds for cognitive science graduate fellowships if we don’t have the faculty to train such students at the highest levels. And it probably isn’t a great idea to endow a classroom in a location we know the faculty dislike, or build a lab in a sub-discipline we fear is being overrun by sexier scientific trends.

The best development officers can help a bit, but the truth is that the provost can sense keenly and quickly whether the investment is a good one from an academic standpoint. For one, provosts know whether a chair or dean can manage implementation of a gift, because the provost often knows of the constraints, and even the personal/professional circumstances of these campus leaders. And the provost, having much of the larger university academic picture, might discern whether the gift should be spread a bit, should be more interdisciplinary (or less so) in design, or is better directed to another unit with a greater chance of successful outcomes.

Again, I am not arguing that the provost lead gift cultivation. The top donors want time with the president and that is understandable and vital. But the provost can often ensure academic integrity and success of investment in particularly valuable ways that help the university immensely.

Tenure and Promotion

While I hold two roles, I did need to give up the provost-level review of tenure and promotion cases, as our policies demand independent reviews by provost and president. Thankfully, a former dean with high standards and long administrative experience was willing to take on this particular task for several months. I still closely reviewed all cases of course, albeit from the president’s office, fulfilling all requirements of our process.

Since this former dean had seen the range of cases over the years, and was both careful and insightful, the process worked very well. But being the provost still, it was a bit difficult for me to switch gears and try to review the cases from a more “presidential” standpoint. The truth is that I looked for the same things the provost did -- scholarly trajectory, impact on discipline, prestigious publication venues, strong external letters, successful teaching and service. But was I, now in the president’s office across the hall, with the former dean temporarily installed in the provost’s office, supposed to be doing something qualitatively different than he was, in my reviews?

Many presidents and provosts have framed tenure and promotion review processes for me in this way: The deans, committees, and provost dig into detail, and the president relies on their good judgment in most cases. The president and provost huddle only for the so-called “tough cases”. This apparently works well, and the lore gets passed on, as the way to manage the fact that two experienced and opinionated academics -- usually former professors themselves -- have the highest-level review of a case to complete.

We had no trouble this spring, and I did learn to drop some of my “inner provost” tendencies with the cases. I had scores of moments of wanting to pick up the phone and call the chair, the dean, or the letter-writers, to plow in to some or another arcane point or nebulous comment in their evaluations. Was I supposed to trust the provost entirely? I knew he was certainly my academic peer, an extraordinarily wise and accomplished scholar. In my case, I did trust the provost 100 percent, but it made me wonder whether my own experience in the evaluation of academic records was now superfluous to the institution. Was it appropriate for me to spend time on the details at all, when I could be on a train to New York for that next lunch with a major potential donor?

Perhaps, just as I no longer use my student mentoring skills or review many scholarly articles, the tenure/promotion sector of the president’s brain is simply not needed by the institution. It’s a hard thing to settle with, and it has made me consider whether an efficient team approach to the provost/president level tenure review should move beyond the “just gather for tough cases” convention. Tenure and promotion decisions are among the most important decisions an institution makes, and I wonder whether presidential involvement should be greater, as the president does have ultimate responsibility for the academic rigor and standards upheld by the university. After struggling with this, I still don’t have an answer or a formula. But I do see quite clearly that I could contribute more to the review of tenure, promotion, and appointments -- even junior appointments -- than my presidential schedule is structured to allow.

For example, it is sometimes the case (although certainly not always) that the president has been on faculty at a few more institutions that those at previous levels of review. This experience enables solicitation of candid letters or insights from a wide national scholarly network others may not have. When making decisions about lifetime appointments, or hires that run to the millions in lab set ups, such queries can be extraordinarily valuable, assuming that they fall within institutional rules governing the process and are made with great thoughtfulness, integrity, and fairness to candidates.

That Marriage at the Top

It was incredibly lonely being president and provost at the same time. Not lonely in area of support or friendship; I had my real husband, my children, superb colleagues, and a chief of staff of immense talent. We laughed, tried not to cry, and kept the ship on course as best one can in a complicated environment. But there was an essential loneliness in my professional life, and I only realize it now, reflecting on the year with more objectivity.

Some president/provost marriages are wonderful, inspiring, and change their world in fundamental ways. Others are troubled, depressing, and extraordinarily worrisome to the staff and faculty. Most all are incredibly complex, as two strong people try to work out who does what, and how they can be a powerful team. They figure out their best division of labor, how they can use their skills most effectively and -- in the best cases -- face the world united.

Not having this particular partner was, I see in hindsight, lonely both intellectually and emotionally. We have a wonderful faculty, and colleagues could meet me for lunch, tell me about their work, share ideas and books. But they live in a different world, and my blackberry beeped and buzzed and rang with urgent matters, no matter how intriguing the discussion. I was distracted in ways that they shouldn’t know, inside baseball “critical” matters that I had to deal with, no matter their real value or import. Only the president could have understood the frustration of being such a split personality, and the fact that I really am still the same intellectual I was before, despite the gray suit and heels. Only the president and perhaps a few others in the central administration have these tugs, and understand how troubling they are, to someone who got into the business for the sole purposes of teaching and research. The president understands it, and when he or she is gone, it leaves an enormous vacuum.

The strange nature of intellectual life as a campus leader is something provost and president understand in their marriage, and it binds them. But again, when they get along well, they are also emotionally tethered in particularly compelling ways. They are responsible and accountable for the university, 24/7. The things that go truly bad typically aren’t their fault -- a student death or a serious legal violation in a distant unit. But the criticism and the blame game float upward very quickly still, and the president and provost know how it feels to be punched hard and just have to take it without losing ones temper. The strongest presidents and provosts I have spoken with say that you get a slightly thicker skin over many years, but it never really gets that thick. We are human and we don’t like people (colleagues, media, external actors) demeaning us, circumventing us, yelling at us, sending flaming emails, and the like. Provost and president turn to each other, they sulk together, and it makes it a lot easier to walk into yet another hard meeting or turn on the dreaded computer.


It’s been a year of unexpected and tremendously valuable learning about universities and their ways. Holding both roles is lonely, but having no academic “couple” at the top is enlightening as well, as it accentuates some challenging aspects of leadership in fluid environments. The best president/provost pairs make it seem like an extraordinarily happy and productive marriage, and it often is. But there are inherent strains and tensions still, and any provost and president would do well to take some time out from the chaos to think about how they -- together -- can best serve the university, while still using their many talents, gained by movement through the hierarchy of the academy.

I leave Albany with mixed emotions; we lived a complicated, challenging year together in the aftermath of a loss. Being in the unexpected dual role prepared me for my new job, by making me -- I hope -- a better leader, a better follower, and a better partner. In higher education we think and talk about teamwork far less than we should, and I am grateful to have learned its true value the hard way.


As of November 1, Susan Herbst will be executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer for the University System of Georgia.


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