As the chief academic officer and often the chief budget officer, the provost plays a critical role during a presidential search and transition. The following is a conversation with Witt/Kieffer’s Concetta Stewart and Philip Tang about key challenges and best practices.
[This interview is also available in PDF format. It is included in the new Third Edition of our guidebook, Best Practices in Higher Education Presidential Search.]
When a presidential transition has been announced, what should be the provost’s immediate considerations and tasks?
Tang: Realize that providing leadership and stewardship of the institution has likely never mattered more. An announcement of an impending presidential change can quickly trigger many reactions — uncertainty of strategic initiatives and long-term plans, anxiety among senior academic and administrative leaders about their future and, typically, rampant speculation over the kind of person the board will seek as the president’s successor and who might be a candidate, including the provost. Regardless of the latter, which is a personal decision and may or may not be public knowledge depending on the institution and other factors, the provost’s steady hand in overseeing the academic (and research, if applicable) enterprise can be a welcome and reassuring force during a time of great ambiguity.
Stewart: Operationally, the provost is an important voice for continuity; the provost oversees the “core business” of the institution, i.e., teaching and learning, and is often the face of the institution – to students, faculty and staff as well as the external academic community, such as accreditors, professional associations, state education agencies and the system office in a public institution. Continuity of processes related to, for example, program approval and accreditation, involve significant relationships with state and federal agencies as well as regional and professional accreditors and are critical to maintaining an institution’s ability to offer degrees.
At many institutions, the provost has responsibility for student life, enrollment management, academic technology, research administration and international activities, which are vital aspects of the institution’s operations and external accountabilities. As the role is typically viewed as “first among equals,” it is also the provost’s responsibility to maintain strong linkages to other senior officers and model continuity — of both
operations and pursuit of the institution’s mission.
How can a governing board or search committee most effectively utilize the provost during a president search?
Stewart: The provost’s role in a search for a new president will depend on the past practice, culture and even size of an institution. As a key cabinet member and critical stakeholder, the provost ought to be interviewed by the search firm. Among many other reasons, it can reassure the faculty that the priorities and concerns of academic affairs are adequately represented. The primacy of the board in presidential searches can be at odds with the academic community’s notion of shared governance and, for many institutions, a tradition of open searches. The provost also understands the academic enterprise better than anyone else. More than any other role, the provost has line-of-sight to a wide range of institutional operations.
Tang: For that reason, the board or its representatives on the search committee would be well served by having an in-depth conversation with the provost, too. Given that academic leaders are typically underrepresented on governing boards, board members often are not equipped with a nuanced understanding of the academic enterprise. Odd as it may sound — and as longstanding a relationship as a board member may have had with the institution — such discussions can provide a great way for them to better understand the institution for which a new president is being sought. Provosts today must balance driving academic innovation with mitigating institutional risk and responding to the crisis du jour. As the nexus of student and faculty affairs, research and fundraising, regulatory and compliance matters, government affairs and legal issues, the provost can be tremendously helpful to a board or search committee in illuminating the current state of the institution relative to the external environment — and the qualities, characteristics and experience the next president must possess.
What if the provost becomes a candidate?
Stewart: That’s the caveat. It is important for the provost be open about his or her candidacy as early in the process as possible, since members of the campus community will often assume that is the case unless they hear otherwise. As a candidate, one’s motives will be questioned. Being transparent about one’s intentions
early can help to assure the community of his or her integrity. Provosts don’t always have direct access to the board, and since a president search is a board-driven process, the provost may have to first establish that line of communication.
Tang: The chair of the board or search committee can address that proactively by having a direct, confidential conversation with the provost early in the process to determine interest in the role. This can provide critically important calibration before the provost becomes an internal candidate — a role that is challenging to navigate in most any search. The provost could well be an exceptional candidate; for various reasons, the provost might also lack the board’s full support. In that case, honest feedback that is thoughtfully and considerately framed is usually the best approach and can spare the provost and the search committee unnecessary anguish.