University News

A dynamic provost, paving the way for Brown

From MIT to Brown, Locke impresses with commitment, caring approach

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2015

Locke assumed the role of provost after just two years of serving as director of the Watson Institute. In both positions, his colleagues describe him as a visionary leader and a motivating co-worker.

If the buck stops with President Christina Paxson P’19, it’s Provost Richard Locke ’17 who hands it off to her.

The first thing you notice when meeting Locke is his firm handshake. That vice-like grip is representative of his no-nonsense personality but belies his warmth. As a leader, Locke is characterized both by his tireless work ethic and his sensitivity.

He wakes at 6 a.m. each day to work out at the Nelson Fitness Center. From there, his day is packed with meetings, and he responds to emails well into the night.

With a self-proclaimed “frenetic energy,” he begins each meeting by asking people how they are doing, how their families are and what is going on in their lives, several faculty members said.

As the University’s second-in-command, the provost is charged with overseeing Brown’s academic and budgetary functions. After stepping into the role July 1, Locke is now closing in on the end of his first semester as provost, touting an impressive list of accomplishments in such a short time, including tackling the budget deficit and leading the charge in crafting the operational plan.

But this semester has also been a challenging one for the administration amidst controversies over institutional racism, and Locke’s office is currently compiling the comments submitted in response to the working draft of the diversity and inclusion action plan released Nov. 19, which has come under heavy criticism from student activists.

The concerns raised this semester pertain to Locke’s own research, which examines the nexus of business and social justice, focusing on labor equity and industrial practices in global supply chains.

“A lot of my work has tried to understand how you reconcile what’s going on with markets and economic pressures with norms of fairness,” he said.

Finding a passion

From a young age, Locke was interested in issues of fairness and social justice. In ninth grade, after reading John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and learning about the conditions of farm workers, he marched in a picket at his local supermarket.

Locke was born the second of four children to a working-class family in Brookline, Massachusetts. He played little league baseball and walked to school from his house on Fuller Street in a family-oriented neighborhood. “At one point, I think there were 100 kids on that street,” he said.

In seventh grade, interested in science and driven by a desire to help people, he decided he wanted to be a doctor. In high school, he took rigorous science courses, ran track and worked part-time as a bus boy.

“I always had a part-time job,” he said. “I came from a family where … the view was that it was important to work and save money and contribute to going to college.”

Locke’s mother, originally from Rome, worked in the travel industry, and his father was an accountant. Neither held bachelor’s degrees, and Locke’s mother insisted that her children work hard in school, read books and play instruments. Locke learned to play the piano. (He now has one in his house on College Hill but no time to play it.)

When the time came, Locke chose to attend Wesleyan University for its pre-med program. He ambitiously intended to fulfill the pre-med requirements while majoring in the school’s College of Letters, a program that combines literature, history and philosophy. But his passion for social justice slowly eclipsed his interest in medicine.

Abandoning his plans to be a doctor, Locke briefly considered a career as a labor lawyer before deciding to be a teacher.  In the summers, he worked at programs for public school students hosted by prestigious boarding schools in New England and fell in love with teaching.

After graduating from Wesleyan, he landed a job teaching seventh-grade history at the Francis Parker School in Chicago. He worked there for two years while taking courses at the University of Chicago, eventually earning his master’s in education.

Entering academia

Realizing he wanted to conduct research in addition to teaching, Locke began applying to doctoral programs in political science with the ultimate goal of earning a professorship. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At MIT, Locke worked toward his PhD for five-and-a-half years, also spending time in Italy conducting research on political economy and industrial practices.

After defending his dissertation, Locke accepted an offer to stay at MIT, teaching political science and international management at the Sloan School of Management, where he would spend the next 25 years. He eventually became chair of the political science department and deputy dean of Sloan.

Thomas Kochan, professor of management at Sloan, first met Locke when Locke was a student in his graduate-level course.

At the time, Locke was “intrigued by labor management relations and how one could go from political theory to understand how workplaces actually function” and was in “the early stages of developing a deeper interest in labor conditions,” Kochan said. 

“I remember vividly when he started teaching, he was just so worried that he didn’t have the real-world experience that our students would demand in a business school,” Kochan said. “I said, ‘Rick, just tell them what you know, and do what you do.’”

Despite his initial concerns, Locke “became one of the best teachers and most innovative teachers at the Sloan School,” Kochan said. “His mark on the Sloan School’s curriculum is profound.”

Locke was a creator of the Sloan School’s Action Learning Labs, which combine traditional business scholarship with opportunities for practical application. He helped launch the G-Lab, a pioneering global entrepreneurial learning laboratory. Now, there are over a dozen different labs offered at Sloan.

He also established the school’s master of business administration program with his knack for “figuring out how to do things that would have perhaps initially seemed impossible,” said David Schmittlein ’77, dean of the Sloan School.

When Schmittlein appointed Locke deputy dean, he was a “standout among the faculty as a leader,” he said. “Intellectual play is one of the things that is very characteristic of Rick, and it’s rare to see that together with the ability to implement,” he added.

Locke’s ability to implement new educational initiatives goes hand in hand with a remarkable ability to fundraise.

“He was an unbelievable fundraiser,” said Maria DiMauro, administrative officer of MIT’s political science department. “Every time you turned around, there was money coming in.”

Locke reminds DiMauro of the comic book hero “The Flash,” “moving at super speed, leaving sonic booms in his wake,” she said. “He had a huge agenda and intended to accomplish it in a relatively short period of time.”

Despite his ambitious plans, “no matter what was on his calendar, if you needed a few minutes with him, he fit you in,” DiMauro said.

Among all of Locke’s administrative innovations and academic successes, his sensitivity and ability to form human connections stand out to his current and former colleagues.

“The thing that people most remember about him is his warmth and his thoughtful supportiveness as a friend,” Schmittlein said. “We would sometimes be together in a very difficult meeting, and he would know who the person was that needed a virtual hug after the meeting. It’s an instinct.”

Locke never thought he would leave MIT, receiving offers from other institutions but turning them all down — until Brown.

Coming to College Hill

In October 2012, the University offered Locke the directorship of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

“It seemed like, with the kinds of skills that I had, maybe I could make a difference here, and that’s why I jumped,” Locke said. “Everyone was surprised.”

When Paxson first met Locke, she thought, “This guy is just terrific,” she said. “He has the energy and vision to be a builder.”

In just three years, Locke raised over $80 million for Watson, added 13 new faculty positions, established postdoctoral and faculty fellows programs and created a new master’s in public affairs.

Every single hiring offer that the institute made under his directorship was accepted.

“Rick took over Watson at a time when it was at a low ebb, and he really charged in there with a huge amount of energy and, like a whirlwind, started rebuilding very effectively,” said David Weil ’82, professor of economics and chair of the department.

Perhaps most notable has been Locke’s ability to rebuild morale within Watson and gain the trust of faculty members. When Locke arrived, the institute had seen six different directors over the course of eight years and was struggling to secure its identity.

“We were enormously lucky to get Rick,” said Stephen Kinzer, senior fellow in international and public affairs. “He gave us all the sense that we’re on a great journey of transformation here.”

In spring 2014, Kinzer went to Locke with a proposal for a new course in international journalism that would include a travel component. Locke was immediately on board and worked to find the financial resources to make it happen.

Last spring break, Kinzer traveled with the 10 students in the course to Nicaragua, where each student conducted research and interviews to produce an original piece of journalism.

“Not all international studies centers would give students an opportunity to do that,” Kinzer said. “Saying that something is not traditional academics does not rule it out in Rick’s book. On the contrary, it’s when he raises his eyebrows and says, ‘Yes, tell me more.’”

Locke’s openness to new ideas is coupled with a conscientious mindset. “He remembers every detail,” said Shankar Prasad MA’03 PhD’06, associate director of Watson.

Locke recruited Prasad to Watson in the summer of 2014, convincing him to leave his post as the director of undergraduate studies at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.

Taken by Locke’s leadership style and vision, Prasad moved his family to Providence, newborn infant and all.

“I look back, and I still can’t believe we left New York to be here,” Prasad said. “I hadn’t even considered moving from New York City, but it was something about Rick’s energy that I just found infectious,” he said.

Faculty members said Locke has the ability to create a work environment of genuine passion for the tasks at hand.

“The happiest I’ve been in my career are the two-plus years that I’ve been here,” said Edward Steinfeld, professor of political science and director of the China Initiative at Watson.

Steinfeld and Locke share a similar history: They both officially started at Brown in July 2013, leaving MIT appointments in the Sloan School and the political science department. They have known each other for almost 20 years.

In the 2012-13 academic year, while on sabbatical in Beijing and considering a hiring offer from Brown, Steinfeld caught wind that Locke had committed to Watson. “When I heard Rick Locke was also coming here, that added confirmation for me,” he said.   

Locke “has this combination of a moral compass that’s focused on great scholarship tied to solving real-world problems and this high-energy impatience, and I felt that that came together really beautifully here at Watson,” Steinfeld said.

A swift ascent

Locke’s transformative success as director of the Watson Institute did not go unnoticed by his superiors.

Last May, Paxson sent a community-wide email announcing that Vicki Colvin, professor of chemistry and engineering, would step down as provost after just one year. The following month, Paxson announced Locke as Colvin’s successor.

Locke currently serves as provost and Watson director and will manage both roles through the end of this month, at which point Steinfeld will take over as the institute’s director. 

Locke said at the time of his appointment that he was “incredibly excited” and “a little anxious” about his new position, adding that though he was relatively new to Brown, “It’s a really good time to be here.”

On July 1, he sent a letter to faculty and staff members asking for their support in executing his proposed priorities in three areas: academic excellence, community and financial strength.

He spent the summer meeting with every department chair to understand the work, goals and concerns of each department, translating Paxson’s strategic plan into an operational plan of concrete initiatives, examining the University’s finances with a fine-toothed comb to develop a plan for sustainability and working with fellow senior administrators to prepare for the launch of the University’s $3 billion comprehensive fundraising campaign.

Locke did not take a single vacation day.

“I put in long hours,” Locke said. “If you have to get the work done, you have to put in the hours. And I’m very, very lucky because I work on things that I am passionate about.”

Patricia Ybarra, associate professor of theatre arts and performance studies and chair of the department, first met Locke in a one-on-one meeting this summer.

“Rick Locke is actually the best manager I have ever seen,” Ybarra said.

In their conversation this summer, Ybarra expressed concerns to Locke about the increasing need for physical space for the arts on campus. The operational plan, released in September, outlines plans for an 80,000-square-foot performing arts building.

“He is incredibly effective in moving ideas into action,” Ybarra said.

Locke stepped into the role of provost in the thick of the push to convert Paxson’s broad, ambitious goals for the University — expressed in her strategic plan — into a more defined set of actions.

While working on the operational plan, Locke also collaborated with Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow ’79 to identify steps to reduce the University’s $8.7 million structural budget deficit.

Chernow and the provost spent the summer carefully reviewing the Deficit Reduction Working Group’s recommendations and the 650 community comments submitted in response.

In September, Locke released a financial plan to eliminate the deficit in three years.

“He’s very good at keeping many balls in the air,” said Dean of the College Maud Mandel.

In meetings with Mandel, Locke said he has learned more about the needs of first-generation and low-income students.

“Supporting first-gen students and our lowest-income students has been something that we really, really ramped up, starting after he came, and a lot of that came because of his vision,” Mandel said.

Locke, a first-generation college student himself, is committed to working within the budget so that all students have the resources they need to succeed, he said.

“I would describe him as a problem solver,” Mandel said. “He really works to get the barriers out of the way.”

Teaching and learning

In addition to serving as both Watson director and provost, Locke is co-teaching a course this semester titled POLS 1490: “Building a Better World: Film and Social Change” with Keith Brown, adjunct professor of international and public affairs and a Watson faculty fellow.

The course’s curriculum includes Locke’s own research on global supply chains.

From the first day of class, Locke was “really trying to de-emphasize his role as the provost and trying to bring forward his role as a teacher instead,” said Katherine Doherty ’16, who is enrolled in the course.

Locke said he is not only a teacher but also a student in the class, learning about elements of filmmaking. “Any time Professor Locke is with us, it feels like he’s learning with us,” Doherty said. “He is very curious.” 

Locke’s natural curiosity “makes him well suited for the job” of provost, said Kevin McLaughlin P’12, dean of the faculty.

“When you’re in a position where you’re responsible for a lot of different kinds of academic departments, a level of curiosity about what faculty are doing in those departments is important,” McLaughlin said.

Locke said this constant learning makes him feel “like being a freshman again.”

While people see becoming a university president “as the natural next step” for Locke, he said he is just getting started as a provost. “I just feel like I have so much to learn still in this job, so right now I’m very focused on trying to be the very best provost I can be.”

While steering academic departments and initiatives with one hand and University finances with the other, Locke knows that to be successful in his goal of ensuring academic excellence, building strong community morale is crucial.

He and his partner frequently host colleagues at their home on College Hill, ranging from holiday parties for Watson staff members to more intimate dinner gatherings.

“I come from a working-class family where people had to work hard to do what they wanted to do, and I think that that ethic was not only an intellectual thing but … a personal thing,” Locke said, listing “fairness, treating people well and listening to them” as his core values.

“It may sound trite, but he’s a really good person,” said Marisa Quinn, chief of staff to the provost.

And after meeting his firm handshake, entering his office and sitting down with him, you begin to see what she means.

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