A few weeks ago, I read with curiosity and amusement Richard Badenhausen’s essay, “12 Tough Questions to Ask Yourself Before Becoming a Provost.” As a provost for three years now, I nodded along and even laughed out loud at his mostly accurate observations of sleeping with the faculty handbook under his pillow, forgoing evenings and weekends, and hanging out with lawyers.
One of the things I learned early in the role was that I needed to master the art of the elevator speech. While professors may be comfortable with long, formal addresses peppered with literary references and the occasional non sequitur, trustees, donors, and reporters have no patience for such rhetoric. “You need a good pitch,” I was told — literally in an elevator — while still an interim provost myself, following my first presentation to a committee of our governing board. To this day, the board chair reminds me to “keep it simple.”
In that spirit, I offer a rebuttal of sorts to my esteemed colleague’s essay. The fact that he served concurrently as an interim provost and a dean may have intensified — and perhaps tainted — Badenhausen’s experiences. Instead of 12, I see only two questions that you must ask yourself before you accept a position as a chief academic officer.
Question No. 1: Do you like to teach? That might seem like a strange query since, as a provost, your opportunity to be the “sage on the stage” will be limited. Perhaps twice a year you might give speeches to the campus community on higher-education trends, or on how a university budget really works.
But the daily life of a provost — especially at teaching-oriented colleges and universities — presents countless occasions to support the development of bright, talented, young (and older) minds.
This, too, is something I learned early on, as I was preparing to step into the role and sought advice from a long-standing provost at another Jesuit institution. His main message: It’s all about the faculty. The most important function of a provost, he said, is the recruiting, hiring, and mentoring of faculty members — because strong and talented people lead to strong and recognized academic programs.
As provost, I have the joy (and I mean that sincerely) of working with our deans to identify where we need to hire professors, at what rank, and in what order to advance our academic goals. And then I get to interview, welcome, and support those faculty members on their journeys. Much like the joy that comes from mentoring doctoral students toward their Ph.D.s, I delight when one of the hires I interviewed six years ago (back when I was a vice provost) earns tenure, aided by professional-development programs and faculty-mentoring structures that I helped put in place.
Provosts find other opportunities for teachable moments when we work directly with faculty groups — both within shared governance and outside of it.
In 1998, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a then-emerging pedagogical technique, cooperative learning, and its application in secondary-school settings. Teachers who are effective in the use of this technique attend as much to the grouping of students, the defining of the problem, and the resources and information needed as they do to the results. Frequently in the provost’s office, I find myself using aspects of cooperative learning.
Especially in these times, this approach has proved essential as I bring together cross-functional teams of faculty and staff members (and students, in some cases) to deal with the moral, financial, and logistical questions of reopening our campus in the midst of a continuing global pandemic, or to discuss a socially just response to the public outrage surrounding the killing in police custody of George Floyd. The teacher in me is as excited today as I was more than 20 years ago, doing my dissertation research, to see new ideas and pathways emerge.
Being a witness to, and a facilitator of, those thrilling “aha!”moments characterizes my work with colleagues across the campus. The provost sits at the nexus of the academic life and business operations of a college or university. From that vantage point, your job is to foster understanding.
In my time as provost, I have taught board members about the role and function of professors, the meaning of pedagogy, and the nature of curriculum design. I have helped our fund-raising team learn academic vernacular as they’ve taught me how to translate it into words meaningful to donors. I have helped orient a new president, new deans, and new vice provosts, helping them to learn the particular culture of our university.
In each of those instances, I came to realize that a provost is not so far removed from a teacher.
Question No. 2: Do you like to learn? Higher education was rapidly evolving long before we were thrown head first into the uncertainties of Covid-19. Which is why, for a provost, it’s even more important to enjoy learning than it is to like teaching.
Besides learning how to give a good elevator pitch, I now know how to develop and write a strategic plan, how to organize a leadership team, how to manage a complex budget, and how to articulate a vision to bring that plan to fruition. I have learned — far more than I ever thought I would — about ROIs, margins, and balance sheets, not to mention market share, competitive pricing, and auxiliary revenue.
“You will spend most of the day in meetings,” Badenhausen wrote, “and then often attend college functions at night.” That is certainly true. I have sacrificed a lot of evenings and weekends at campus events welcoming all sorts of visitors and speakers. Yet in the process, I have learned from some of our country’s best public intellectuals and academic minds about topics as wide-ranging as national security, immigration, gun violence, antiracism, death and dying, and business ethics. I have met celebrities, current and past governors, senators, Congress members, judges, journalists, and community organizers.
This past spring, I learned that social media and interactive technology could be leveraged to bring thousands of attendees to our research symposium, business-plan competition, and honors induction ceremonies in ways we never previously considered. Through virtual attendance at those events, I learned from our students about alarm fatigue in hospital intensive-care units, employee-turnover rates in East Asia, community gardens, electro-scattering, and plastic-bottle converters. I learned that the energy and innovation that arise from the fostering of intellectual curiosity cannot be tempered, even in the face of social-distancing.
After his experience as an interim provost, Badenhausen was left with tough and troubling questions: “How good are you at making really hard, and often unpopular decisions?” “How talented are you at apologizing?” and “How strong is your stomach?” In my three years as a provost, I’ve learned that when you fully commit to leading a scholarly community and trust in the intelligence that surrounds you, you discover that popularity is overrated, apologies are not so often necessary, your stomach is settled, and, most of all, your mind is fully engaged.
For those who love to teach and learn, the provost’s job is a great gig.
Christine Siegel is the provost of Fairfield University in Connecticut.
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