Tennis ‘14.5: The provost’s potential

Opinions Columnist

Well, at least she’s a woman.

At the end of May, President Christina Paxson announced that the provost search committee reached a decision regarding the selection of Brown’s 12th provost, to replace former Provost Mark Schlissel P’15. Schlissel has assumed the role of University of Michigan president — a job that will probably make better use of his commitment to graduate-level scholarship in the STEM fields, at the expense of pedagogy and the liberal arts, and permit him to spend the money he believes that area deserves. He’ll certainly earn a fat wad of change himself.

Brown’s new provost is Dr. Vicki Colvin. She hails from Rice University, with a background in chemistry and chemical and biomedical engineering, and recently served as vice provost for research. Her resume lists an impressive number of honors and awards. Colvin’s appointment certainly cements Brown’s administrative female leadership. And in case you are wondering what exactly the provost does: She is the University’s chief academic administrator, responsible for areas related to research and education, including tenure, as well as leadership of a number of committees, including the Academic Priorities and University Resources committees.

Last spring, I wrote a column (“Who should the next provost be?” March 11) calling on the provost search committee to select a candidate who is female, identifies as a minority and, most importantly, already holds a position at Brown — preferably in the humanities. I continue to believe that an internal candidate would have been the most solid choice, simply because she would assume the post of provost already equipped with an intimate understanding of the university-college system, the importance of the New Curriculum and liberal arts to Brown’s undergraduate education, and the importance of teacher training to graduate education.

But Colvin is an outsider. Her background is in the hard sciences. She’s also white. And so, examining the situation on paper, it seems that the 12th provost appointment is not that much different from the eleventh.

But there is a difference. Colvin, unlike Schlissel, possesses the potential to be a good fit for Brown. She has demonstrated a solid commitment to teaching excellence. Notable accolades include Phi Beta Kappa’s teaching prize and the Camille Dreyfus Teacher -Scholar Award. Both are centered on recognizing and rewarding professors’ devotion to undergraduate education. Furthermore, Paxson noted that Colvin beat out her competitors for the provostship by displaying a deep understanding of the significance of liberal learning and academic freedom at Brown. Finally, from the moment of her appointment, Colvin has articulated vision and enthusiasm for active learning and outreach.

Indeed, The Herald reported Colvin’s recognition of Brown’s uniqueness and its ability to contribute to global progress through new initiatives with global reach. Such statements signal Colvin’s greater appreciation for aspects of Brown that make the University special, especially when contrasted with Schlissel’s comments after he took office in 2011. Schlissel remarked that he viewed his job as being Brown’s “wise enabler,” and he repeatedly compared Brown to Princeton — his alma mater, lest we forget. He also stated his intention to transition into a biology professor role after completing his tenure as provost. Guess that didn’t work out.

So Colvin, at least superficially, seems like she might excel as provost. Yet, the fact remains that Brown, once again, failed to recognize the talent right under its nose. Why must we continually search beyond the Van Wickle Gates to find capable leaders? Every day we observe leadership in the classroom from brilliant and accomplished professors who no doubt aspire to, and would shine in, administrative roles. Indeed, the provost search committee considered a number of internal applicants — appropriate, since it was among the criteria proposed to them by both students and faculty members. It’s a shame that one of these candidates wasn’t chosen. Perhaps an internal candidate who possesses a strong relationship with Brown would be motivated to stick around longer than a few years.

Furthermore, an internal candidate wouldn’t face the same learning curve as an external one. Indeed, one faculty member said, at a meeting with the provost search committee in February, “Brown has its own history, own sense of self, own constituencies. … It takes three or four years to figure out how the place actually works.”

Colvin spent the majority of her career at Rice. She will require a period of time to gain familiarity with Brown’s tradition of governance and philosophies of research and education — not to mention simply getting acquainted with faculty, staff and Corporation members, as well as the policies and history of the University. An internal candidate would have been better poised to hit the ground running from day one.

Paxson stated that the primary purpose of considering external candidates was to increase the diversity of the applicant pool. The Herald reported in March that Paxson said, “The higher tiers of academic administration continue to be dominated by white people and men.” Purportedly, expanding the search to other schools was intended to lead to the appointment of a minority provost. It seems that idea didn’t exactly go as planned. Colvin’s appointment only solidifies the whiteness of Brown’s higher tiers of administration.

It’s frustrating that so few of our University’s leaders identify as minorities. I understand the search committee’s need to select the very best candidate. But having so many white people in power threatens to alienate minority students who don’t feel represented. It does nothing to improve Brown’s diversity. As I wrote in March, “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.” It seems we will have to wait a bit longer for that.

There’s not much more to say at this time. I am glad Colvin seems focused on the interests of students — both undergraduate and graduate — and faculty members. Colvin’s first few months in office will demonstrate whether she is committed to causes like financial aid and sexual assault prevention. From the get-go, I invite her to review the current process in place for reporting incidents of sexual assault involving graduate students and faculty members, which go through her office — and then overhaul it immediately.

Meanwhile, over at Michigan, President Schlissel has embarked on his first year in office. I stand by my sense of relief at his departure, as well as my conviction that he never really “got” Brown. In fact, an interview from his first week at UMich sums up this fundamental misunderstanding. Said Schlissel, “Qualitatively, Michigan’s not different than Brown.” I could not disagree more. Let’s hope Colvin truly values Brown’s distinctiveness and leads in a manner to cherish it.


Maggie Tennis ’14.5 should probably write her thesis about provosts.

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  1. I agree with the thrust of the article regarding picking an internal candidate. Brown should be filling as many senior posts as possible with strong internal candidates based on a straetgic succession planning process. With a full time faculty of over 650 and a large administrative staff, it is ridiculous that Brown has to go outside to hire a provost, president, head of IT, new investment officer who know nothing about the school, its culture or its values. New hires require several years to learn about Brown, develop a network and learn to work with different alliances and groups among the staff, faculty and student body. Yale, Stanford, Harvard, etc have a much stronger tradition of hiring internal candidates for these posts — which I believe gives them a strategic advantage. I still do not understand why Schissel was not selected as President when Simmons stepped down. He was eminently qualified as a scholar and administrator and he invested several years as Provost to learn about Brown.I disagree with the notion that the provost needs to be a women or minority, etc. The provost should be selected based on best qualified candidate with both administrative and academic achievements regardless of gender and race. There is no strategic advantage in having an all female adminstration (likewise an all male one).

    • Reality Check says:

      Is it so beyond the capacity of the Ivy League mind to consider that qualified candidates may exist outside of its walls?

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