University News

Provost leaves mark on Brown

University News Editor
Monday, January 27, 2014

When Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 departs for the University of Michigan presidency July 1, he will leave behind a legacy that includes leadership of an expansive strategic planning process, an accredited School of Public Health, tough financial decisions and enhanced environmental teaching and research.

Upon the announcement of his selection as provost in April 2011, Schlissel lauded Brown’s “commitment not to rest on its laurels but to aspire to even greater impact on our society.”

Schlissel pursued that social impact throughout his two and a half years at Brown, though his intentions have occasionally run up against the reality of an economic downturn, and the results have sometimes met criticism from a variety of factions at the University.


A plan for the future

Together with President Christina Paxson, Schlissel presided over last year’s strategic planning process, supervising the work of the six committees, helping to draft the plan and attending several events to solicit feedback after its release.

In addition, he has been intricately involved in beginning to implement the plan’s initiatives, including the launch of a sophomore seminar program and Paxson’s recent pledge that the University will fund at least one summer internship or research opportunity for students receiving financial aid.

While those measures have been praised, the plan’s perceived focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics has come under fire.

“I do worry a little about the role of the liberal arts,” said Professor of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine GP’15 in November.

Following the announcement of Schlissel’s departure, Professor of Economics Andrew Foster said he did not believe making advancements in the humanities and social sciences “came naturally” to Schlissel. But Schlissel found “ways to be supportive” by listening to others with more experience in those disciplines, like former Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron, Foster said.

The plan’s proposals to expand graduate and medical education and its heightened attention to research also raised concerns for some. They have “the potential to change the nature of (Brown’s) traditional undergraduate commitments,” Professor of History Howard Chudacoff said in November.

But some defended Schlissel’s history with disciplines outside the sciences. “As a humanities scholar I can say that Provost Schlissel was a great supporter of faculty hiring in this area,” wrote Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12 in an email to The Herald. “His work on the Watson Institute and on faculty recruitment in the social sciences will leave a positive impression on Brown for years to come in spite of his relatively short stay here.”

Schlissel stands behind the plan in its entirety. “My biggest regret is that I won’t be here into the future to see … the maturation of all these things that will be coming out of the strategic plan,” he said.


A changing environment

Schlissel said he was proud of the growth of environmental teaching and research during his time at Brown.

“I felt strongly about that since the very beginning,” Schlissel said.

“Sustaining Life on Earth” was chosen as one of the themes of integrative scholarship in the strategic plan, and the Environment and Society proposal became one of the University’s two Signature Academic Initiatives — focal points of future research and scholarship to be supported under the plan.

Foster, one of the contributors to the Environment and Society proposal, said, “It became very clear to us … that he saw a real opportunity there, right from day one.”

Environment and Society was chosen largely because it “addresses a set of issues of unarguable importance,” Schlissel said in October.

Friday’s announcement of Schlissel’s departure came the same week the new Building for Environmental Research and Teaching opened to students.


A healthy tenure

Schlissel, who served as dean of biological sciences at the University of California at Berkeley before coming to Brown, also cited the creation of the School of Public Health last February as a project he was excited to see completed on his watch.

The public health program’s leaders first floated the idea of creating an accredited school about a decade ago, but an official proposal to turn the program into a school was not completed until September 2012.

“It’s really become enormous over the last decade, and it represents an area where Brown faculty and students can collaborate on great scholarship that has tremendous impact and importance for society,” Schlissel said last February.

Schlissel also said he was glad to have been able to recruit several senior staff members to the University, including Dean of Medicine and Biological Sciences Jack Elias, who took over in September.

“It is clear that he took an interest in the public health school and the (Alpert) Medical School,” Foster said. “To some extent (it is) his expertise. … He had a pretty clear vision of what direction things should go.”


Financial acumen

In addition to developing and implementing new initiatives, Schlissel had to deal with the fallout of the financial crisis during his tenure as provost.

In January 2009, then-President Ruth Simmons projected an $800 million drop in the value of the University’s endowment. Combined with last year’s federal sequester, which cut deeply into federal research funding, Schlissel — who chaired the University Resources Committee — was forced to oversee University belt-tightening amid budget deficits.

“I’m trying to maximize the University’s mission within the confines of a budget,” he said at a November 2012 URC meeting. The University pays what it must to retain a “talented, motivated staff,” he said.

“It isn’t a compassionate answer. It’s a real answer,” Schlissel said at the meeting.

Again this past November, Schlissel said the University budget deficit presents a major obstacle in paying for new projects. But some, like Herald opinions columnist Daniel Moraff ’14, have suggested that a difficult financial situation has served as an excuse for the University to avoid spending on certain projects, like financial aid.

Eli Upfal, professor of computer science and vice chair of the URC, described Schlissel as a “very efficient chair.”

“He saw acutely the need to target resources in particular ways, not to spend them everywhere,” Foster said. “He was the sort of person who was willing to make decisions, who was willing to say no. In tight financial times, that’s the responsibility of the provost.”

Foster said Schlissel’s time at Berkeley prepared him to make those difficult financial choices.

“That was a strength of his that was honed by being at a public university where the financial resources were tight,” Foster said.


-With additional reporting from Kiki Barnes and Joseph Zappa

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