University News

Vicki Colvin named new provost

Vice provost for research at Rice University will assume new role this summer

By
University News Editor
Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Vicki Colvin, vice provost for research and professor of chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice University, replaced Mark Schlissel P’15 as Brown’s 12th provost July 1, the University announced in May.

Colvin’s selection as the University’s top academic administrator concluded a national search that began in February, shortly after the announcement that Schlissel would leave at the end of last academic year to become the University of Michigan’s president.

“In two decades at Rice, Vicki Colvin has built a distinguished research record as a physical chemist and a national reputation as an effective academic administrator,” President Christina Paxson said in a University press release, calling Colvin a “collaborative and energetic leader.”

Colvin comes to Brown after spending most of her academic career at Rice, which hired her in 1996 to grow its nanotechnology program. She was named Rice’s vice provost for research in 2011, placing her in charge of overseeing and growing the institution’s research projects. She also served as director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology from 2001 to 2011.

Colvin graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and physics in 1988 and received her doctoral degree in physical chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 1994. She then spent two years working at Bell Laboratories before joining the Rice faculty.

Colvin’s research has earned her praise in both academic circles and such mainstream publications as Discover Magazine and Esquire. She has also won several awards for her teaching.

Colvin stood out to the search committee because of her answers to questions about liberal learning and the open curriculum, Paxson told The Herald, adding that she expects Colvin to combine her respect for Brown’s “distinctive approach to education” with new ideas.

The start of the school year marks a period of significant administrative turnover. Maud Mandel, professor of history and Judaic studies, was named the new dean of the College a few weeks after Colvin’s announcement and also began in her role this summer. Mandel replaced Katherine Bergeron, who left Brown at the start of 2014 to become president of Connecticut College, and Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Margaret Klawunn then served as acting dean.

Paxson said Colvin’s background as a physical scientist was an appealing quality because it brings disciplinary balance to the University’s senior leadership — a topic the search committee discussed in the initial stages of the process. But Paxson added that Colvin was selected for her general credentials, not her experience in a particular field.

Colvin said in May that she was attracted to Brown in part because it “always seemed like the Berkeley of the Ivies” in that it has a special undergraduate culture, which she called the University’s “crown jewel.”

But Colvin also noted that the University has “collectively chosen to grow its research mission. … That ship has sailed.”

She said she values Brown’s emphasis on integrated scholarship — areas where “solutions to some of our worst problems are going to be found.”

Colvin said Paxson’s strategic plan “gives me my marching orders,” and she is looking forward to implementing it, citing its plan for growth as a particularly exciting component. “Growth is a time of opportunity and change,” she said.

Among Colvin’s greatest challenges will be charting the University’s financial future, she said.

“Higher education is in transition,” Colvin said. “What that means is that as you think about the future, it’s not clear that even elite private institutions like Brown are going to look the same in 10 or 20 years.”

Part of that change is the growing influence of online education, which has received heightened attention from administrators and faculty members at Brown in recent years, including the development of several Coursera courses.

Colvin said she is one of a few professors in the nation to have taught multiple Coursera courses. Though more Coursera offerings will not be a priority for her as provost, more experimentation in digital learning will, Colvin said, adding that online education has the potential to improve learning at Brown.

“Distance learning begins in the third row,” she said, adding that flipped classrooms are one way of engaging more students and changing the “passive environment” of the lecture hall, particularly in large science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses.

But online courses do not benefit only Brown students, Colvin said. They are “a way for a small university to have a really big global impact.”

Colvin said she will not focus exclusively on her role as provost in her first few years. She said she would like to continue her ongoing research from Rice by setting up a small collaborative lab, in which other faculty members will take the lead and she will play a secondary role.

She added that she would like to continue teaching but is not yet sure whether and in what form she will be able to, suggesting that she might be able to make one of her two Coursera courses available to Brown students for credit with an in-person component.

Colvin will play a major role in developing fundraising priorities and cultivating resources for initiatives in Paxson’s strategic plan, Schlissel told The Herald in May, adding that he planned to advise Colvin to spend enough time getting to know Brown and the people on campus before “making important decisions.”

  • Bobbo

    Once again I am baffled by Brown having to continually go outside the university to find talent for senior positions. Is there a human resources strategy at Brown to develop leaders? Is there no one on the Brown faculty or administrative staff capable to taking on these major strategic positions? If that is the case, then perhaps the process for tenure review needs to be changed to consider not just publications, scholarship and research, but also leadership and managerial capabilities. When you hire folks from the outside, there is a long period of transition needed for the lateral hire to become familiar with the institution’s governance, faculty, staff personnel, corporation, policies and strategies etc. Not good for implementing Pres Paxson’s strategic initiative. Also, lateral hires have no natural loyalty to Brown…..as an example please note that Schissel’s short tenure as Provost. This new Provost has spent her entire career at Rice, so what makes her at all qualified for Brown’s Provost? Rice is an excellent institution but very different in orientation from Brown. Can you imagine Princeton or Yale hiring a Provost from the outside? The corporation needs to wake up and make personnel development a strategic imperative. No where is this mentioned in Pres Paxson’s plan. Brown has hired virtually all external personnel in major searches since Pres Paxon has joined the university –head of IT, head of endowment management, provost, head of Watson institute, head of university advancement, Dean of the medical school ….etc

    • Bonobo Gazumbo

      Yes but no worries about that. Paxson has nothing strategic, and has initiated diddly squat.

    • Alum ’97

      Outside hires make sense for Brown because we don’t have the scale or capacity to field an administrative “farm team” of potential senior leaders. I don’t know if alternate comparisons will support my case, but I suspect a closer analogue might be found at a school like Dartmouth. The longer acculturation process is inevitable. And, yes. Sometimes Schissel / Gordon Gee types stumble into the mix.

      • Bobbo

        This is a poor argument. Just because brown is smaller it does not mean it can’t develop more internal talent. It is simply not a priority and by hiring all these laterals it slows down implementing strategic and administrative priorities. Brown needs to continually weed out poor performing employees and develop those who have high potential. Schlissel or Bergeron could have been selected as President and they would have performed just fine.

        • Dak Chae Hung

          Dartmouth has had leaders promoted from within, and has engaged new Presidents who are Dartmouth Alums. Their current President is a Dartmouth Alum. Their practices are about evenly mixed. Brown’s only leader in recent history, who is a Brunonian, was the Provost who was Schlissel’s predecessor. I would say that that was Brown’s exception, and not the rule. Now, Bergeron just was not stellar. The only thing worse is having Klawunn as her replacement, albeit temporarily. Alum ’97’s response is glib. Only somebody who doesn’t care would respond like that.

          • Alum ’97

            Thanks for the patronizing remark. It’s not that I don’t care. I just don’t know enough about the workings of academia and will never have the insight that insiders do.

            My tone was appropriately modest. In the business world, outside hires and promotion from within are always a delicate balance related to scalability, resources, cultural change/cultural preservation, etc. The original poster was too dismissive of Brown’s hiring moves.

  • smh

    Yes, let’s continue the perpetual Brown Bubble by only hiring within. Because it just isn’t possible that competent administrators exist off College Hill.

  • emmy66

    Colvin will be an outstanding Provost. Congratulations to Brown!