I’ve been serving as “Interim” Provost for the last six months, and have at least a year to go in my term. As with any interim position, my special role is to get things ready for a long-term Provost—resolve outstanding problems, make sure some needed basic policies and practices are in place, and keep some key strategic initiatives moving forward. Our last Provost, Dr. Herma Williams, left things is good shape—I am enjoying the work. But what is a provost and what does she or he do? I like to put these in simple, direct, common sense terms, so I will work toward that somehow.
If you look up a definition you will find for example that the title Provost goes back to Roman times, and the office was developed during the middle ages and beyond in various ways. I am an historian—we have to being with historical background. The title might be used for the leader of a cathedral, the head of a prison, or the chief magistrate of a Scottish city, or more recently a high ranking university official of some kind. (See for example the free online dictionary.) The unifying feature is the head of something whether prison or university. (No jokes about similarities, please.) In most universities today the Provost is the “Chief Academic Officer” and “Vice President for Academic Affairs,” and stands in for the President in his or her absence.
So what does a Provost do? To get at this, we might look at the role of Deans. The dean is the leader of a school (of business, or natural sciences, etc.) within a university. Here is my shorthand for the dean’s role. The job is to bring together the faculty, academic programs and students for the success of all—faculty and students in an academic institution. A dean looks to the immediate environment of the school in his or her charge, to the needs of faculty for scholarship and teaching, to the development and review of academic programs, to student needs, successes and difficulties. The goal is to make it all thrive. A Dean might work to make sure classrooms are in good shape, engage in researching and helping to develop quality academic majors, mediating disputes, encouraging students or professors, celebrating achievements, hiring and evaluating, etc. There is great satisfaction in this role. My six years as a dean were some of the most satisfying of my professional life thus far. It is also an extremely demanding role. The average dean’s tenure is less than 3.5 years.
A Provost leads a group of deans, along with other administrators or specialists to bring together the entire academic enterprise. This means that the Provost must keep up with all of the program plans, faculty research and general student needs. But beyond this the Provost is usually, in FPU’s case is the ALO—Accreditation Liaison Officer. The Provost oversees the coordination of all accreditation issues, including paving the way for “assessment” of student outcomes, which means demonstrating that students learn what we say they do. This issue is crucial and at the center of accomplishing our educational mission and establishing our reputation.
In addition the Provost works with the President and other VPs to keep the whole institution moving in the same direction. For example academic program development must be lead in conjunction with enrollment plans. Student life and spiritual development must be integrated with the academic programs. The Provost’s office is also a human resources office and must work with the institutional HR efforts. Because the academic enterprise is the heart of a university, the Provost works closely with budgeting priorities for facilities, personnel costs and projections and technology needs, and with the library and other academic resources. For a Christian institution like FPU the Provost must be in touch with the religious, spiritual and theological needs and directions of various constituencies, and supporting churches, and serve as a participant or leader, if possible, in the religious discussion and life of the region. If possible, if he or she can find time, the Provost should be a contributing scholar along with the faculty. If you like to be involved in many things, and love to see how an institution as a whole works, it’s a good gig.
I am sure I have left some things out, but you probably get the idea. Here’s my final illustration, and probably the most important. As we were walking in line at commencement in May, the President led the left hand line and I the right. We met together at a single door. I paused to let him through first, and he did the same for me. As we both hesitated, he almost stumbled. The Chair of the Board, walking right behind, said “don’t trip the president!” That statement opened my eyes. I replied, “You just stated the first role of a Provost.” Whatever you do, don’t trip the president. What the president does is another discussion.