7 ways the provost’s job is bigger and broader than ever before

Expanding the role of the chief academic officer

Changes to funding models, instructional techniques and technology, among other areas, have pushed college and university officials to continually adapt. In the midst of this, one position has emerged as a change linchpin: the provost. Traditionally the chief academic officer, this campus leader once managed curriculum and championed faculty. Now at most institutions, “vice president of academic affairs” has been tacked to the title.

This means provosts increasingly have one of the most difficult jobs on campus, says Michael T. Miller, a University of Arkansas researcher who studies higher ed administration and organization. Many of the administrative functions once performed in a provost’s office are being pushed down to lower levels, and the provost is becoming the in-house leader of the institution, taking the place of the president (or chancellor) who has an increasingly external-facing role.

“The provost becomes the driving force for what institutions are attempting to do. The president sets the direction, turning the provost loose to accomplish that vision,” says Miller. In effect, with presidents out fundraising and building bridges, somebody has to stay home and take care of the nitty-gritty.

It’s a tall order that may be taking its toll. The average term of service for a chief academic officer is shorter than that of a president (5.3 and 6.7 years, respectively), according to data collected by the American Council on Education (ACE) and analyzed by CIC.

“What’s happening is a necessary change, and people who take on the provost role have the capability to do the very complex decision-making that’s required,” says Richard Ekman, president of CIC.

Besides decision-making abilities, here’s a breakdown of skills and responsibilities needed for excelling in the chief academic officer position today.


Money management know-how

Reducing and reallocating resources is one of the harder and more complex decisions provosts are now expected to make. “This used to be the primary activity of the college president, but more often than not, the provost is now the one who has to handle internal reallocations to best serve students and other constituents,” says Miller from Arkansas.

Speaking of dollars, provosts may also need to pitch in when it comes to courting potential donors and forming strategic alliances with industry. A focus on money isn’t gauche; it’s doing the job.

3 provost personality traits and why they need them

1. Political sensibility: A provost is a facilitator, advocate, mediator and conflict resolver: a friend to all, and best friend to none. “In a way, it can be a very isolating job,” says Glenn Sharfman, provost at Oglethorpe University in Georgia. Even at smaller colleges, provosts might have 100 or more people reporting to them.

2. Boundless compassion: It takes plenty of empathy to understand that student backgrounds, preferred teaching techniques and the support many students need are different from a generation ago. Then, there are today’s parents who will call about why their daughter isn’t graduating or why a professor is being too hard on their son. Provosts take time for that call, says Yolanda Page, vice president for academic affairs at Dillard University in New Orleans. Properly handling such situations may mean the difference between losing a student or not —a significant matter for tuition-dependent schools.

3. Entrepreneurial spirit: Brian Jersky, provost and senior vice president of California State University, Long Beach, seeks out innovative ideas from entrepreneurs—both in the community and on campus. “Universities have a lot of expertise you can leverage,” he says. Kerry E. Pannell, former provost of Agnes Scott College in Georgia and now the Council of Independent College’s vice president for academic programs, says the equation looks something like this: Strong respect for tradition plus entrepreneurial spirit equals provost success. “You have to innovate, but also work with faculty who understandably feel the need to maintain academic traditions,” she adds.

Analytics expertise

“Fifteen years ago, it was a chore just to find out how many students were majoring in each field,” says Glenn Sharfman, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Oglethorpe University near Atlanta. Now that analytics tools are plentiful and easy to use, decision-makers are awash in data points. In fact, nearly every decision is data-driven—a term that wasn’t even used back when most college freshmen were born.

“This job revolves around data, best practices and analytics,” says Sharfman. That’s why CIC’s Institute for Chief Academic Officers, a basic training for future provosts, is filled with sessions on how to interpret and collect numbers.

Communication chops

Provosts must be able to communicate more effectively than ever before, expertly transforming data into stories and reaching out to trustees, foundations, alumni and industry leaders. Messaging is expected to be on-point, strategic and informative for constituents about the implications of decisions being made, says Miller.

And because something like a small issue in the dining hall can become a tweet storm, provosts need crisis communication skills, too. That’s the reason public relations techniques are now a key part of training for provost hopefuls.

Tech smarts

Tech is a big part of Brian Jersky’s world at California State University, Long Beach. As provost and senior vice president, he has the academic technology services (ATS) office reporting to him. “With ATS, there are a lot of decisions to make about the best technology for what you want to do. It’s always tech as a means to an end, though,” says Jersky.
In other words, provosts may not need to worship at the altar of tech, but they do need to quickly grasp concepts and the staggering array of technology that’s now used campuswide.


Trend watcher

Most people appreciate that academia is not a trendy field. But because enrollment falls under a provost’s domain, provosts must take into account job market trends and the perceived (and perhaps changeable) needs of 18-year-olds and their parents, explains Sharfman from Oglethorpe.

“There’s more of a quid pro quo now: ‘I’m going to college and majoring in X and I’ll do X,’” Sharfman says. Typically, the link between college major and future job isn’t so direct, but programs of study and course offerings inevitably reflect what students and employers say they want.

Words of wisdom from provosts, for aspiring and new provosts

“Find mentors you admire and work with them closely. You need good support.” —Brian Jersky, University of California, Long Beach

“I think that provosts now and in the future will benefit from having extremely clear missions about who they are and what they intend to be. These mission statements need to be functional, operational planning guides for how resources are distributed.” —Michael T. Miller, University of Arkansas

“Don’t expect a one-size-fits-all position. What you end up doing will depend on the institution, the president to whom you report, the team with which you work and your abilities, strengths and characteristics. The [provost] experience is different for each person.” —Yolanda Page, Dillard University

Class monitor

Some provosts push themselves to visit classes and even teach occasionally. Yolanda Page, vice president for academic affairs at Dillard University in New Orleans, recently taught a rhetoric class focused on leader discourse throughout history. Teaching once in a while, she says, keeps her connected to students.

Jersky at CSU Long Beach agrees that provosts need to think of the classroom in the loftiest terms: hands down the best place on campus. “Spending time in class with students reminds us of why we are here,” he says.

On a less lofty note, however, provosts need to work with the faculty senate to monitor curricular glut, which may be an unfortunate byproduct of budget models based on student credit-hour generation, says Michael J. Bugeja, distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University, who writes about higher ed and consults nationally with college officials. “Faculty have an obligation to understand how creation of courses based on dissertations, trendy ideas and narrow research interests increase budgets and tuition,” says Bugeja.

Student champ

From now until at least 2033, we know there will be a declining number of 18-year-olds. In addition, for many institutions, there will be more lower-income, first-generation college and Hispanic students. “The net effect is that we’re going to fight harder to simply get the same number of students to enter the doors of our institutions, and those students will typically be less well prepared,” says George Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Also read: Campus Climate Summit: Getting from contention to consensus, an event wrap-up featuring Provost Brian Jersky of California State University, Long Beach

Translation: Provosts, in charge of student affairs and success, will champion whatever works best for student success. Faculty who still believe that their job is to sort who should be in their classes and who should not might push back. It’s the provost’s job to remain a faculty advocate and yet get everyone to see the light (that is, alter teaching strategies, have more inclusive advising, fix bottleneck courses, adjust mindsets or do whatever else it takes).

“Higher education is confronting a profound dilemma,” says Mehaffy. “Either we change the way we do business, or we won’t survive.”

Victoria Clayton is a Southern California-based writer.

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