The Short Life of a Provost: A Q&A on New Challenges for Chief Academic Officers

Whether dean, provost, or vice president for academic affairs, the role of the campus chief academic officer (CAO) has changed steadily from the on many current faculty and administrators remember when they began their careers. Along with traditional pressures related to governance, budgets and faculty professional development, CAOs also face new calls to raise their institutional ranking or to address concerns about student learning outcomes or athletics compliance, to name just a few examples.
James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of The Provost’s Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer, published by Johns Hopkins in April. In the course of completing that volume over the past three years, Martin, who is an English professor at Mount Ida College, and Samels spoke with and interviewed more than a hundred presidents and chief academic officers. While the most familiar title for the CAO is still vice president for academic affairs or dean, we have also observed how “provost” is increasingly becoming the title many refer to when describing the senior academic officer. Traditionally, provosts have held more authority than deans and even academic vice presidents in their supervision of operational areas including the budget, admissions, and even institutional advancement and athletics. In the following Q&A with NEJHE Executive Editor John O. Harney, the authors have used the titles interchangeably, as they respond to several of the core issues that challenge the initiatives and longevity of chief academic officers:

Harney: You’ve reminded readers that at most higher education institutions (HEIs), the provost “leads the faculty and serves as their key representative to the administration while … acting as the administration’s spokesperson to the academic faculty.” What are the keys to getting administrations (and trustees) and faculty to work together on challenges, ranging from shifts in academic content and delivery to institutional finances, that seem to threaten many HEI’s very future?

The word is simple, but the task is complex: Inclusion. For all the times a new or even seasoned vice president for academic affairs has heard “inclusion” mentioned in recent years, it should have been mentioned even more. We find that this simple premise is overlooked for hundreds of everyday reasons. It is not usually clear or smooth to involve individual faculty, as well as faculty committees and ad hoc task forces, in a campus master-planning project, but it is necessary. Effective institutions nurture trusting, flexible relationships between their provosts and faculty governance or collective bargaining executive committee leaders. Sometimes spending a portion of even a tight budget on a national speaker once a year can provide additional evidence and experience to develop common ground. Finally, bring even first-year faculty members into the governance process immediately. Learning by doing can sometimes produce stunning achievements.

Harney: Especially during these challenging times facing higher education finances, enrollments, and, for some, collegiality, how important and well-understood arête differing concepts of shared governance and participatory governance?

Again, the answer is simple, but working effectively and leading the institution forward academically in either system is complicated. It requires courage and a grasp of institutional history. Before success can be achieved, it is critical to determine whether the chief academic officer and the faculty at a given college are on the same page about their operational model. Sometimes, professors will assume that they work in a shared governance reality, while operationally their institution offers participatory governance opportunities. Shared governance, in the view of the American Association of University Professors, includes the faculty having “primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum … methods of instruction, research [and] faculty status.”As well, the faculty “authorizes the president and the board to grant the degrees thus achieved,” and they “should actively participate in the determination of policies and procedures governing salary increases,” as examples.In this sense, shared governance leads to shared accountability and responsibility for major decisions.

In contrast, in a participatory governance model, professors may be asked to consult on these and other matters, even regularly, but beyond their “voice” they will not exercise as much authority. In this second instance, faculty will be given notice on key issues such as athletics expansions, new software platforms, or targeted admissions or advancement campaigns so that they can review and comment on proposed major changes. Successful provosts know the differences between these systems and work effectively with the strengths and limits of each when encouraging colleagues to enhance teaching and learning processes toward student success and faculty professional development.

Harney: What is the role of the chief academic officer in determining which new academic programs could help the institution thrive, and which programs should be closed and eliminated?

Opening and—especially, closing—academic programs are careful, delicate procedures for a dean or provost. The easier of the two is opening a new program or major. When such a commitment has been made, the CAO’s wisest role is to stay involved but not control the proceedings and to offer the resources of his or her office to gather and share data related to similar programs at competitor colleges as well as regional workforce needs and projections. Provosts can make a difference by collecting consumer preferences from former, current, and future students, as faculty members may not have the time or capacity to reach out to these three cohorts. Finally, asking the president to be patient until the faculty have completed a feasibility study and formed their recommendations increases the likelihood of long-term success.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the provost’s role in closing aging, consistently underenrolled degree programs requires listening as much as acting. The decision to close is, in the end, straightforward. However, many of the steps leading to that decision may not be straightforward ones, and the process will be more successful if the posture of the provost is consistently that of listening to why the program is underenrolled, why prior reinvigorations have failed, or even why the program should be given another year (perhaps against an agreed-upon three-year horizon) before offering suggestions or moving toward resolution. CAOs should convey, in both perception and reality, that listening is their first priority.

Harney: Should the role of the provost at some institutions become intertwined with that of the CFO?

Simply put, if “intertwined” means “collaborate closely with,” then yes; if “intertwined” means “combine with,” then no.

While we have observed some smaller institutions considering the consolidation of the CAO and CFO positions and moving forward with one individual holding both roles, it does not seem to us to be a decision made from strength. In our view, whether it is a seasoned provost at a larger institution or a new dean at a smaller institution, this individual has more than enough to do in serving as an effective academic leader. Integrating the full responsibilities of the vice president for finance and administration into a provost’s job description can move that professional further from her or his primary responsibilities. However, placing the institution’s main CFO under the supervision of the chief academic officer may be an effective model for a variety of institutions.

As an example, The Provost’s Handbook features a full chapter on the importance for CAOs and CFOs to trust each other and to work together on a daily basis.The chapter identifies the benefits in this approach as well as highlighting the drawbacks and risks inherent in a competitive, even adversarial, relationship.Indicatively,the book does not include a serious examination of combining these positions.

Harney: What role does a dean or academic vice president play in raising institutional rankings? Are there any guidelines to shape this process?

We approached Rob Franek, head of The Princeton Review’s Guidebook publishing program and asked him for his view of the provost’s specific responsibilities in raising institutional rankings. His comments appear in the chapter on the provost’s responsibilities in leading the faculty. In essence, Franek believes that whatever title the chief academic officer may hold, he or she does, in fact, have a responsibility to facilitate the institutional ranking campaign and that a fair number may not realize this or, realizing it, not know the key steps to take. He offers three suggestions for CAOs to start: Make sure that all teachers on campus hold their office hours, as small things like this reflect campus culture and fulfillment of mission; remember that most of The Princeton Review’s checklists are student-driven; and “partner” with ranking agencies and publications by inviting representatives onto campus to “view infrastructure and experience new programs.” Franek strongly believes that the lingering opinion rankings are “gotcha” exercises to be feared and avoided is an outdated way for provosts to approach them.

Harney: What is the best preparation for a provost?

Chief academic officers with unconventional backgrounds and work experiences, including non-faculty, may bring dynamic, rapid change to even an entrenched campus community, but their shelf-life as an academic leader may also be short. As preparation for effective, creative, long-term service, we recommend the following:

  1. Prior full-time faculty experience with the rank of associate professor, at least
  2. A doctorate
  3. Research and publications, whether in a discipline offered by the institution where they will be appointed or in the professional practice of teaching
  4. Academic management experience
  5. Budget development experience and accountability.      

It is difficult for provosts, especially new ones, to make unpopular decisions that distance them from close colleagues. In these instances, some presidents view this, perhaps unfairly, as a weakness on the part of their CAO. When addressing this concern, we would caution new provosts and deans also to look in the other direction, i.e., toward the faculty and to counter any perception that, as administrators, they may no longer be trusted. In the end, provosts must overcome both of these judgments while walking a clear and careful line.











Comments are closed.