Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Provost Paradox

I was surprised to find myself explaining this phenomenon to multiple people over the past few months, so I'm putting it down here for dissemination and comment. Readers will wonder whether this is a specific reaction to something at Brown; it's not, and out provosts largely seem to be sound eggs.

There's a problem that plagues academic hiring. I'm sure it affects corporate hiring too, though there, the obsession with growth may mean this is considered a feature, not a bug. Still, I trust some B-school professor has given the problem a catchy enough title to write a book around it; I just haven't found it yet.

Provosts are chief academic officers of universities. Their responsibilities range from overseeing academic programs to supervising research activities, and they often control budgets and personnel to both enforce and exhort. At many universities, the president is a fund-raising, public-relations machine, while the provost keeps the academic and research programs running.

The problem is, many provosts are really just presidents-in-waiting. Positions like deanship and provosthood are ideal stepping-stones to presidencies elsewhere, so some provosts—especially those without a deep institutional attachment—are burnishing their vita waiting for the right presidential opening.

As an academic, one administrative attribute you value tremendously is stability. Innovation is terrific (and essential: the very lifeblood of quality academia) when it's driven bottom-up, for all the usual reasons that demand-driven, bottom-up activity works better than policy-driven, top-down decision-making. In some instances, of course, top-down decisions are essential, most crucially when an institution is stuck in a rut and needs shaking-up. In most other circumstances, things get iffy.

The problem is, steady-as-she-goes doesn't cut it in the job market. When you apply for that plum presidency, a cover letter that says, “Was provost for eight years; maintained quality of academic programs, sustained funding levels, ensured no drop in already-high student-satisfaction ratings” just doesn't cut it. That you obtained something in good shape and sustain that level of quality is simply not regarded as sufficient achievement, never mind that it's a tremendously difficult thing to do (indeed, much harder than sprinkling new works about campus).

The problem, I believe, has everything to do with the ubiquitous press release. A statement that says “We hired Ludwig Knickerbocker, who in eight years at Beta State U. didn't screw up anything” is synonymous with ol' Ludwig not being a go-getter; there's no tiger in his tank. Where is the pride in proclaiming such a person as your new president? What alumnus who hasn't donated before is going to start doing so now? Compare that with “created the world's first Institute for Hypodermic Psychoceramics” and you've got the alumni right where you want them.

Of course, nobody really asks Beta State what they think of the Institute. Oh, sure, there are some disgruntled faculty, but that phrase is redundant, and they're probably just upset that they weren't part of the institute's gravy train. The folks on the gravy train are, of course, ecstatic. What are the institute's long-term prospects? What did the creation plan say about evaluation? Were there any metrics? How does it score today? And do those metric make sense? You almost never see that in the press releases.

Of courae, ask any faculty member about the proliferation of Institutes and Programs, and they will respond with weary cynicism. That's because they know that long after the creator has burnished their vita and moved on, the institution will be left holding the bag (and given how conservative academia is, the new entity will never actually close, but rather will slither along in the undergrowth). And yet when they hire someone else's provost to be their president, they propagate the very culture that they, often rightly, deplore.

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