The Elusive (and Expanding) Role of the Provost

By Concetta M. Stewart, Ph.D.

With higher education undergoing significant transformation, institutions are looking for a new kind of leader in the provost. Today’s provost is often asked to take on responsibilities that go well beyond academic stewardship to include areas as expansive and diverse as enrollment and admissions, student affairs and student services, compliance, finance, fundraising, marketing, and even information technology.

That provosts play an increasingly central role would not be debated by many. However, what a provost does at one institution can often differ significantly from what he or she may do at another. Therefore, while the role of the provost has traditionally been defined by the academic goals and strategic priorities of each institution, expectations have expanded to reflect a growing number of new responsibilities. This state of affairs is not a new phenomenon, but it has led to the position being poorly defined at many institutions, often hampering its effectiveness.

[This article is also available in PDF format]

How does the role differ today … more CAO or more COO?

Concetta Stewart

Most often, we see the distinction made between provost and vice president for academic affairs. Reporting to the president, the provost is responsible for the creation and implementation of the academic priorities for the institution as well as ensuring the quality of its educational programs. In addition, the provost is responsible for the allocation of resources to support those priorities and perhaps most importantly to ensure that the institution is able to recruit, retain, and mentor an outstanding faculty. Though related, the scope of the vice president for academic affairs is often viewed as more limited, with primary responsibility for planning, implementing, and coordinating the educational programs of the institution.

Perhaps practically speaking then the changing role of the provost may be better characterized as a shift from that of chief academic officer to one of chief operations officer. This is especially true as the provost’s role is expanding in many cases to include not only enrollment management, student life, and student services, but also marketing and IT. In addition to the growing breadth of these potential responsibilities, there is little consensus as to what the provost should do from one campus to the next. In fact, “What does a provost do?” is a question often asked by search committee members who are charged with recruiting for the role. Even selecting the proper title for the role can present a “peculiar” challenge.

What new responsibilities?

This shift is especially evident today as the role expands to accommodate leadership needs focused on retention and branding issues. This changing and expanding role reflects two trends: The growing need for the institution to distinguish itself for potential students, donors, and strategic partners along with an increasingly central role academics play in retention inside the institution and in fundraising and external relations outside the institution.

To establish or sharpen a brand requires a clearer definition of what the academic programs are designed to accomplish and whom they will serve. To do this, the academic footprint must be clear and compelling to the external community as well as leverage the strengths of the institution’s mission, history, geography, and community. The debate regarding who owns this brand is not only long-standing but has also heated up in recent years. College branding is at a tipping point, it has been argued. Academics (and faculty) must be front and center as institutions seek to distinguish themselves.

How does the role differ across institutions?

How the role of the provost differs from one institution to the next depends on the priorities and challenges as well as the resources and structure of a given institution. Additionally, those priorities will necessarily reflect the mission, context, and leadership of the institution at that particular moment in time. For example, is the institution facing enrollment challenges or accreditation issues? With the president’s role primarily being externally facing, what will the provost’s role be in overseeing internal operations or in supporting fundraising and external affairs?

The size of the institution is also significant to how this unfolds, since individuals at smaller, independent institutions already play multiple roles. Larger institutions, on the other hand, with more specialized and narrower areas of responsibility — often more pronounced in state systems of higher education — have come to this changing landscape a bit later.

How are relationships changing with key institutional partners?

There is recognition that improvements in retention benefit from a closer link between curricular and co-curricular activities, services, and staff. This means that both academic faculty and leadership are working more closely with their staff colleagues to define academic programs and to support students in navigating them. This requires a provost with strong communication skills to encourage faculty engagement, while recognizing long-held principles of shared governance.

Perhaps one of the most obvious areas of collaboration for the provost would be finance, since the largest part of an institution’s budget is faculty personnel. However, that has not always happened and is often because the academic career trajectory often does not support development of that expertise. While national academic associations such as the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) have been offering joint institutes for nearly a decade, these opportunities need to be viewed as a priority by the institution as well as the individual.

In addition, colleagues who may have once been peers of their institution’s provost are now reporting to him or her. Staff will often ask when such a transition occurs, “Will the provost really have time for us?” They see the provost as already having so many demands from the faculty. Yet, the faculty also feel that they are losing their advocate and by extension, their voice in the institution. This has implications for shared governance, which becomes even more important in this changing environment. However, these changing circumstances may also mean that the role of the dean becomes even more significant, now serving as the chief academic officer of their school or college.

What ensures a successful provost-president relationship?

It is increasingly common for the provost’s role to change with a new president, not only because presidents differ one to the next, but also because the needs of institutions change to reflect shifts in demographics and political environment and to accommodate advances in technology. While at one point an institution might be confronting declining enrollments, it might need to address program realignment and prioritization at another time. These circumstances may also require skill sets an existing provost does not have and will need time to develop. However, facing often severe financial challenges and rapidly changing market expectations, presidents, as well as trustees, will ask, “How long should success take?” Conversely, with the tenure of presidents shrinking and the pace of retirement accelerating, potential provost candidates will ask, “What is the impact on a provost’s tenure?”

These times require a new kind of relationship between the provost and president, where the partnerships are essential but more difficult to achieve given all the churn facing both higher education generally and institutions specifically. Many describe the provost as one of the most challenging jobs in higher education yet one of the most important because it is essential to the health and well-being of the institution, its faculty and staff, and, perhaps most importantly, its students. Essential to success in that position is a strong working relationship between the provost and president. Alignment in vision and values will be key as well.

Finally, what does it all mean?

There are additional factors to consider as institutions re-define the role of the provost or determine what the role of the next provost should be:

  • Alignment with the institution’s mission, including who is to be served and who are the key partners (e.g., state or religious affiliation)
  • Recognition of the current context and leadership, including the appointment of a new president or changing political environment
  • The nature of current and anticipated priorities and challenges facing the institution, including enrollment decline or accreditation issues
  • Constraints related to resources and established structures

This role of provost is not just expanding; it is becoming quite different. It requires a new kind of leader, one who can operate independently yet in consonance with the rest of the institution. However, despite this seemingly impossible set of expectations, there are many who love the work of the academy and are committed to meeting the challenge. The role is not going to go away; rather it is changing. Therefore, we must continue to strive for what is manageable and possible. There is no simple answer, but we can and must continue to move the conversation forward.

About the Author

Concetta M. Stewart, Ph.D., is a principal in the Education Practice at Witt/Kieffer. Based near Philadelphia, Concetta brings to her recruiting work vast experience as a teacher, mentor and administrator as well as expertise across academic affairs, art and design, and technology and communications. She supports executive recruitments in these areas and for other key senior-level positions including presidents and provosts.

This article originally appeared in HigherEd Jobs; permission to reprint has been granted.

Follow Witt/Kieffer on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedInSubscribe to our blog to receive every post on key issues in leadership and recruiting.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *