Tennis ’14: A new provost, a new opportunity

Opinions Editor
Thursday, January 30, 2014

It wasn’t a big surprise when the University announced late last week that Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 is leaving Brown to become the 14th president of the University of Michigan. Schlissel’s departure simply adds one more name to the list of administrators who have left their positions since Christina Paxson assumed the presidency in 2012. The most notable of these, based on her popularity and success in improving Brown’s curriculum and advising systems, is former Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron. Bergeron recently began her tenure as president of Connecticut College after seven years in her previous post.

But while I was disappointed by the announcement of Bergeron’s departure, I met Schlissel’s with a shrug, and, admittedly, a sigh of relief. I have long believed that Schlissel was not a good fit for Brown, and I think that his departure creates an important and necessary opportunity to instill Brown’s academic mission with stability and purpose.

I first encountered Schlissel at a special Hillel Shabbat dinner for Brown faculty members and administrators. Schlissel was the keynote speaker at this event, and he spoke — for a very long time — about his journey from boyhood to the Provost office at Brown. What struck me about this speech was Schlissel’s solid focus on himself and his career. There was little mention of Brown itself or what he hoped to achieve during his tenure here.

In this speech, Schlissel praised his past institutions of employment — often for features that demonstrated that he did not understand Brown and its students. For example, he shared his appreciation for curriculum requirements, namely in the sciences, and mocked the existence of  Brown’s Developmental Studies concentration. He seemed fixated on the hard sciences and scornful of the humanities. Because I revere the university-college system and its focus on the liberal arts, Schlissel’s preoccupation troubled me.

Many of Schlissel’s actions over the next few years increased my anxiety about his Provostship. In fact, I wrote a column last November (“Tuition assistance shows appreciation for faculty,” Nov. 21, 2013) criticizing Schlissel for refusing to consider in the strategic plan expanding Brown’s Faculty Tuition-assistance program to match increases in Brown’s tuition. Moreover, I noted that his statements toward faculty needs have often appeared condescending and dismissive.

I was not the only one who noticed Schlissel’s preoccupation with science and medicine and its harmful effects on the university-college system. According to a Herald article regarding Schlissel’s departure, he was responsible for strategic plan initiatives that focused on STEM research as well as graduate and medical education — at the expense of undergraduate resources. Indeed, Professor of History Howard Chudacoff said Schlissel’s plan had “the potential to change the nature of (Brown’s) traditional undergraduate commitments.”  Professor of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine likewise expressed his concern that Schlissel’s plan might harm the liberal arts.  Schlissel has publicly questioned the very concept of a university-college, remarking that the use of the term “could work against our interest to recruit good (graduate) students.”  His focus on graduate students is misguided and reveals an academic perspective more representative of large public universities than of Brown.

Now that Schlissel is moving on, the University has the opportunity to replace him with a Provost who values and supports the liberal arts. We need a Provost who will work for the soundness and stability of the university-college system. He or she  must be open to student and faculty concerns — a quality made increasingly important by recent administrative actions demonstrating exactly the opposite.

The best way to ensure that the next Provost has the interests of the university-college at heart is to fill the position with someone from within Brown. Too frequently institutions of higher education mistakenly believe that novelty and outside experience translate to good governance. Those making hiring decisions often underestimate the effectiveness of institutional knowledge, experience and familiarity. I want to see a Provost that truly knows and understands Brown — one that embraces the Developmental Studies concentration as something that makes Brown strong and unique.

I implore the search committee, especially its undergraduate members, to review only internal applicants. In particular, I urge UCS President Todd Harris ’14.5 and Vice President Sam Gilman ’15 to select student applicants to this committee that want to focus the search on current Brown faculty members and administrators.

Schlissel’s decision to leave Brown opens more doors than it closes. It grants the University the opportunity to select a leader that understands Brown’s distinctive academic realm, and more importantly, one who prizes Brown for the feature that makes it unique: the university-college.


Maggie Tennis ’14 is really, really glad that the University of Michigan offered Provost Mark Schlissel a job. She wishes him nothing but the best.

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  1. A mean spirited article.

    • Or, you know, an article that takes a perfectly appropriate tone with a very powerful man who’s done some lousy things.

      This isn’t preschool. There are consequences to what happens here.

    • Mean-spirited, how? It was critical of his performance, sure, but it’s an “opinions” column. Opinions are often negative.

  2. kdsjf a;dskl says:

    Schlissel’s daughter is a development studies concentrator- do you think he hates her too?

    • ConcernedAlumnus says:

      did Ms. Tennis not even fact-check her article?

      • No, I knew about that when I wrote the article. Still, I have heard him disparage the concentration and others like it on multiple occasions.

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