Mark Schlissel P’15 will begin his five-year term as the University’s highest academic officer July 1 when he replaces current Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98. Schlissel, dean of biological sciences and professor of immunology and pathogenesis at the University of California at Berkeley, will arrive on campus after 20 years working in the sciences at large research universities.
But even as Schlissel plans to help faculty members make an impact with their research off College Hill, faculty, students and administrators are optimistic about his understanding of the University’s focus on undergraduate teaching.
Though Schlissel will fine-tune his plans after meeting with administrators, students and faculty, he plans to provide “resources and structure” to improve faculty research, invest in teaching and update the University’s facilities.
“I want to help the faculty achieve their aspirations,” he said. “My big job is the wise enabler.”
Faculty teaching and research are complementary because “all that we’re involved with concerns the development, production and application of knowledge,” said Ann Dill, professor of sociology.
Schlissel also intends to increase the influence of both undergraduates and faculty outside the Brown community by encouraging collaborative research.
“Looking for areas where the strengths of members of Brown can have an impact on what’s out there in the world is important,” he said. “It would be wonderful to get students involved in research.”
The University’s infrastructure, such as its residence halls, eateries and communal spaces, also needs more investment to provide a “more modernized, upgraded environment,” he said.
Berkeley to Providence
Schlissel said there are obvious differences between Berkeley and Brown, including size and research focus.
Berkeley enrolls about 25,000 undergraduates and 10,000 graduate and professional students, far more than Brown’s approximately 6,000 undergrads and 2,400 graduate and professional students. The California school also differs from Brown in that it boasts a law school, a journalism school and a business school. “It’s a large, complicated university. Brown is on a much more manageable scale,” he said. “Although undergraduate education at Berkeley is valued, it’s mainly focused on graduate studies.”
Still, Schlissel said both institutions emphasize diversity and value research.
Schlissel said he decided to assume the role of provost because it covers all academic disciplines and because “Brown is a great place.”
Schlissel said his undergraduate alma mater, Princeton, is very much like Brown. “It’s small and focused on providing an excellent undergraduate education,” he said. “My years at Princeton were transformative.”
Schlissel has been a faculty member at various universities for 20 years. He first taught molecular biology and genetics as well as medicine and oncology at Johns Hopkins University. He then moved to Berkeley, where he taught immunology and biochemistry for 12 years.
After completing his term as provost, Schlissel said he hopes to stay on as a member of Brown’s faculty. “I would … reinvigorate my research and look forward to teaching undergrad and grad students,” he said. Schlissel is currently being considered for tenure. “The process is going on right now in one of the biology departments,” he said.
A favorite pick
The search committee for a new provost reviewed about 100 applicants and nominees, wrote President Ruth Simmons in an email to The Herald. “It was hard work,” she said.
The search committee was a “broadly representative committee,” Schlissel said, comprising students, faculty and administrators.
Schlissel said he applied for the position and was interviewed by telephone by an administrator and faculty members. Schlissel then met with the full committee in Simmons’ home and was asked “about how I thought I felt about the lives of students, faculty and my own career,” he said.
The next step involved meeting Simmons individually and getting to know other campus leaders. Schlissel finally came to campus a third time to “see how life is back here,” he said.
The search committee was looking for “an outstanding scholar,” Simmons said. She added that the committee focused on finding an individual who had an understanding of Brown’s mission and selected Schlissel unanimously.
“Does this person have an idea of what makes Brown special? Does this person know what’s going on at Brown? Can this person fit in at Brown? Does Brown have any weaknesses and can they deal with these weaknesses? Is this person a leader?” said Diane Mokoro ’11, search committee member and president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, of the questions committee members asked themselves.
The committee worked very hard to “look for people who valued the liberal arts aspect, someone who enjoyed the process of being a part of an enterprise like this,” Simmons said. The committee looked for “someone with the same values in excellence of teaching and scholarship and research. Someone who had genuine commitment to the progression and tradition of the place, its unique history and the open curriculum,” she added.
Schlissel was a good candidate because he “seemed to consider the undergraduate student experience,” Mokoro said. “When we talked about research opportunities or academics at Brown, he made sure to mention students in his answers.”
This was the first time the search committee for a new provost included students, Simmons said. “The students felt very drawn to his statements about his values and his life story,” she said. “They felt drawn to the fact that he heavily identified with the kind of education Brown provides.”
Kimberly Mowry, professor of biology and chair of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry, said she is excited for Schlissel’s arrival. Department chairs meet with the provost monthly.
“He’s a tremendous scientist. It’s clear,” she said.
At Berkeley, Schlissel was “an excellent colleague,” George Breslauer, executive vice chancellor and provost of Berkeley, wrote in an email to The Herald. Breslauer praised Schlissel for possessing high academic standards, talent and organization.
Schlissel is “able to cope with high levels of complexity across a wide range of issues,” he wrote. “He is also a visionary who thinks about how things might be done differently. All these will serve him well as provost.”
Role of the provost
The provost ensures that high-level decisions are made in the “context of our traditions and goals,” Simmons said, and oversees “individual officers facing individual questions.”
As a major player in the administration, the provost “can make a big difference as far as the climate and culture of the institution,” Dill said. Since the provost serves as the chief academic officer of the University, he or she interacts with faculty members on a daily basis, particularly through serving on or chairing University committees.
The provost also deals with an array of stakeholders and has to be “able to gain their respect,” Mokoro said. “They have to want to work with you, and you need to show them that you’re going to listen to their perspectives.”
Simmons mentioned it is important for an individual serving as provost to go beyond the exact qualifications for the position.
“Many people can do the technical aspects of the role. It’s a different matter to have the enthusiasm that conveys how vital it is to you personally,” she said. “In this leadership role, it’s important to not just do the technical aspects of the job, but to be the spokesperson of the University and to convey the importance of that. I think the committee felt he would be a great spokesperson for Brown.”
“We’ve had excellent provosts,” Simmons said. “Every provost has done something significant to advance Brown.”
She said she hopes Schlissel will carry that a step further. The provost has to be a leader that will challenge students, faculty and departments to strengthen academic programs, she said.
“I’m hoping he will not be hesitant to challenge what we’ve been doing,” she said.
Though he comes from a large research university, Schlissel said he does not imagine an enormous change in the size of Brown’s Graduate School or how much attention it receives. “I want to enhance the resources and opportunities available to both undergraduate and graduate students,” he said.
“Undergraduate education is a high priority under all disciplines at Brown. I assume that’s going to continue,” Mowry said.
Still, Mowry does not think an increased focus on graduate education would be a problem.
“I don’t see one suffering at the expense of the other. I don’t see why they can’t be complementary,” she said.
The University is at a moment where it has to redefine itself, said Arthur Matuszewski ’11, former student representative for the University Resources Committee and former Post- editor-in-chief. This involves “focusing on what the role of the University is in society and how it can aspire to transform society itself.”
Matuszewski mentioned that since former Provost Robert Zimmer stepped down in 2006, there have been questions about what makes Brown unique. “This makes the provost’s job really difficult,” he said.
The provost preserves the undergraduate experience at Brown by “providing support and providing funding for student initiatives and the unique experience undergraduates have compared to other universities,” Matuszewski said. “The provost will have to balance a lot of issues.”