Columns

Tennis ’14: Who should the next provost be?

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Opinions Editor

At the end of January, I wrote in a column that the departure of Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 is an opportunity to hire a new provost who genuinely understands the aspects of Brown that make it strong and unique (“A new provost, a new opportunity,” Jan. 30). Significant among these is the centrality of the liberal arts, the New Curriculum and, of course, the university-college system. As I wrote then, Schlissel’s tenure at Brown revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of these features and their importance.

After attending an Undergraduate Council of Students open forum seeking undergraduate feedback regarding the qualities and qualifications of the next provost, I expressed my concern about the lack of student representation and concrete student input into the provost search process (“Provost search lacks student representation,” March 3). At this forum, I listened to a number of peers voice their thoughts on the provost search and potential candidates. Some advocated candidates on the basis of characteristics like the possession of a “big personality” or “enthusiasm” for the job. That’s great, but I consider these to be baseline qualities that, while valuable, are merely a starting point for evaluation.

In a dream world, the next provost would encompass the following: He or she — and perhaps it is time for a she — would be a Brown faculty member. Indeed, hiring an internal candidate is crucial. Just as important is that she identify as a minority, thereby increasing her ability to relate to minority students. Finally, she would recognize and appreciate the university-college system as vital, and the liberal arts and New Curriculum as essential, to Brown’s mission and success.

The next provost must be chosen from within Brown. We must not fall victim to endless recruitment of celebrity administrators from other universities, who fail to understand the qualities that make Brown distinct. Or even worse, administrators who scorn phrases like “university-college,” while planning initiatives focused solely on STEM fields at the expense of the liberal arts. The STEM fields bring in more money, it’s true. But is monetary value the only value we seek to extract from our academic disciplines? What about the value that the humanities and social sciences provide to undergraduates by teaching them to think, and to graduate students by training them to teach? In my view, they’re priceless.

One student at the UCS forum expressed a desire for an external applicant from a liberal arts college. But this desire is misguided, as it ignores the “university” aspect of the university-college. The new provost must understand and value graduate students and their research, especially for their enablement of undergraduate learning. Graduate students do not exist just to conduct research — they are here to learn how to teach, and the next provost must support their development as “teacher-scholars.” She can do so most knowledgeably with experience in a university setting.

There’s another side to this. Her experience should not be limited to a large research university, because then she might undervalue the significance of the “teacher” piece of the “teacher-scholar” equation. A Brown professor is an ideal candidate particularly because of her exposure to aspects of both the liberal arts and the research university. That experience is conducive to melding graduate learning with that of undergraduates in a way that ultimately benefits both, as exemplified by the late Brown President Henry Wriston’s 1946 essay “The University College.”

Before Schlissel was provost, Professor of Anthropology and Italian Studies David Kertzer held the position. The strongest attribute of a provost who is a faculty member, who will continue to serve as a faculty member, and who will one day return to full-time faculty status, is his or her ability to relate to fellow faculty members and to be accountable to them. Furthermore, a faculty provost might very well increase faculty interest in administrative matters — and enthusiasm to participate in them.

It’s no secret Brown has fallen victim to administrative bloat. Increased faculty leadership is one step in solving this problem. But why should faculty members willingly take on more responsibility if they do not think their participation is valued? Perhaps with a faculty member at the helm of academic governance, they will. More important still is the probability that an internal candidate from the Brown faculty will be intimately acquainted with faculty concerns, thus making her better poised to serve faculty interests. This feature is significant in bridging the administration and the faculty — and expanding trust on both sides.

Our next provost should identify as a minority — but not just because a diverse administration makes Brown look good. Brown must increase the number of administrators of color for two key reasons unrelated to the University’s reputation. First is the issue of student security and confidence. As a student of color emphasized to me, when students of color see fellow minorities in positions of power, they feel their voices are being represented. In a similar vein, Psychological Services is currently grappling with the problem of students of color feeling uncomfortable there, “due to cultural minorities and LGBT providers not being well represented” among the staff, Active Minds co-president Julia Lynford ’14 told The Herald recently (“Students seek additional Psych Services support,” March 6). These students “are afraid that providers won’t know where they are coming from.”

Second, it is imperative that the Brown community correspond to the national population in terms of minority representation. And not just at the student and faculty level, but also at the administrative level, for reasons expressed in my first point. Brown is not “diverse” just because a fraction of the student body identifies as students of color. Diversity exists when it is all-encompassing, and when it is active. Minorities must possess genuine leadership, responsibility and influence. The provost possesses all of these. Therefore, a provost of color is an important symbol both to the general community that Brown is achieving active diversity in a significant fashion and, more particularly, to students of color that they have a leader whom they can relate to and trust with their interests.

And there you have it. It’s an ambitious list of qualifications and features. But it’s a necessary list. Our last three provosts have been white men. Two of them were external candidates. Now that we have the chance, let’s shake things up.

 

Maggie Tennis ’14 is concentrating in provost studies.

  • angry comment section regular

    your articles are always so well thought out and interesting (and i’m speaking as someone who’s generally indifferent to brown politics). i really hope the university/search committee takes your points into strong consideration.

  • johnlonergan

    Who can Brown appoint as provost in order to reverse Brown’s decline into irrelevance?

  • johnlonergan

    Brown lacks visionary leadership. I am concerned that this search will result in yet more incompetent leadership.