Tennis ’14.5: Where is the provost?

Opinions Editor

As Brown’s provost, Mark Schlissel P’15 was arrogant and dismissive — but at least he was upfront about it.

Meanwhile, our new provost is nowhere to be found.

The provost is Brown’s chief academic officer, responsible for all academic and budgetary affairs of the University. Notably, she chairs the Academic Priorities Committee, which is concerned with “fulfilling the academic mission of the University.” Given her duties, Provost Vicki Colvin should embody the following traits: transparency about her work and interest in undergraduate students. So far, she seems to show neither.

But even if the provost isn’t interested in me as a Brown student, I’m interested in her. I’ve been following the provostship for over a year. When I learned last winter that Schlissel was leaving to assume the presidency of the University of Michigan, I began writing about the future of the provost position at Brown. I advocated for a 12th provost who cares deeply about the aspects of Brown that make it distinct; namely, its university-college system and everything it entails. Most importantly, that includes its strong focus on undergraduates and the opportunities and support it offers us to design our educations.

During Schlissel’s tenure, this focus was largely absent. By his own admission, he didn’t value the notion of a university-college. Likewise, through his strategic plan initiatives, Schlissel communicated his disregard for undergraduate resources — and thereby the undergraduate student body itself. In fact, I noted last year that Professor of History Howard Chudacoff described Schlissel’s strategic plan objectives as having “the potential to change the nature of (Brown’s) traditional undergraduate commitments.

When Schlissel left and Colvin became provost, I thought we had the opportunity to shift University Hall’s attention back to undergraduate concerns. I wrote that Colvin “seem(ed) focused on the interests of students — both undergraduate and graduate.”  I no longer believe this to be the case. I’ll tell you why.

I first reached out to Colvin back in early October, asking her to pen a guest column for The Herald that would outline her goals for the next year and her overall tenure at Brown. I reached out because I had seen and heard little from Colvin thus far. Via her assistant, Colvin declined my request. When I followed up, her assistant informed me that she was too busy to write anything. I then requested a meeting, thinking I could get a sense of the provost’s plans and write something on my own. Again, I was rejected and told that I could next expect to see Colvin when she speaks at the mid-year completion ceremony in December.

I’m disappointed that I won’t get to chat with Colvin before I graduate, especially after having invested so much time following the Brown provostship and given my initial optimism about her appointment. Of course, it’s possible that Colvin’s reluctance to meet with me is simply a byproduct of her busy schedule and the demanding nature of her job. And maybe it is asking too much to expect the provost to carve out time for one individual — especially a student who has been highly critical of her predecessor. But I am not the first student to reach out to Colvin, looking for the tiniest bit of information about what’s happening on the west side of the first floor of University Hall.

The Herald has struggled throughout the semester to win time with Colvin. While Schlissel met with Herald reporters as often as multiple times a week, Colvin has been quoted in Herald interviews only three times this semester. Last May, Schlissel told The Herald that he advised then-incoming Provost Colvin to “spend enough time getting to know Brown and the people on campus.” When Schlissel comes out looking accessible and engaged, we’ve got a problem.

Last semester, I advocated that the provost search committee consider minority candidates for the position. Allocating powerful administrative roles to minorities enables minority students to feel like their voices are represented in University decision making. With mostly white administrators now running the school, we are certainly failing in that regard.

Just as disturbing is Colvin’s lack of contact and transparency, which threatens to alienate all students and make us feel as if none of our voices are represented — or even considered. In fact, sources within the Undergraduate Council of Students who wished to remain anonymous have expressed to me disappointment and frustration over Colvin’s lack of interest in undergraduate student interests, as well as her lack of influence in, or even comment upon, undergraduate affairs.

Colvin’s involvement with UCS has been almost non-existent. According to these sources, the body approached Colvin this summer. The provost expressed a desire to learn more about dining and 24-hour study spaces and to potentially organize student focus groups on these issues. UCS immediately moved forward to fulfill her request, but after initial conversation, efforts stagnated due to the provost’s lack of communication and failure to respond to UCS follow-up.

It is troubling enough that Colvin’s attention to undergrads is limited to a vague interest in dining and where we study after 2 a.m. But the fact that the above interaction is the extent of her contact with UCS is unacceptable. And Colvin hasn’t shown up at any UCS events — or hardly any student events, for that matter.

According to Graduate Student Council president Steve Zins, the graduate student experience with Colvin has been more positive. Colvin held two meetings with grad students from STEM fields and the humanities, respectively, that were candid and productive. Moreover, she will speak at a GSC meeting on Dec. 3, Zins said. But nothing tangible has emerged from these meetings — only dialogue, which certainly does not compensate for ignoring undergrads.

This September, I called on Colvin to engage with center-stage issues on campus — like efforts to reform sexual assault and financial aid policies. Perhaps she has done so, but we have no way of knowing, because she is not transparent about her work or objectives. She has rarely spoken to The Herald and other campus publications or offered any opportunities to interact with her in person. Even her email communication to the Brown community has been infrequent.

Transparency is a crucial characteristic of any University administration, because it is an important step toward accountability and inclusivity. Although Schlissel’s opinions and actions were unpopular — and rightly so — he was still forthcoming, even blunt, so we always knew what he was thinking. And despite the disrespect he demonstrated throughout his tenure toward all facets of the Brown community, he at least offered us the respect of transparency. He allowed us to disagree with him. Colvin won’t even let us agree with her.

In fact, I was only able to critique Schlissel because of his willingness to communicate. For this, I admire him. He was not afraid of criticism, and he continues to be vocal at UMich.

Meanwhile, at Brown, Colvin appears aloof and above it all. Dare I say arrogant and dismissive? No, I won’t go that far. I have few facts, little communication and zero personal interactions on which to base such a conclusion.

And that’s precisely the problem.


With this column, Maggie Tennis ’14.5 concludes her opining about Brown provosts — at least as an undergraduate.

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  1. Charles Hagenmeyer says:

    The new provost made a mistake in having accepted a job at Brown. The more she observes Paxson, the more she realizes that she has made that mistake. Therefore, she is busy looking for a new job, somewhere else. She (the new provost) is smart and resourceful. We wish her lots of luck. That’s why you have not seen her around Brown. But then, think about it…whenever we see Paxson, Paxson is shooting her mouth off about nonsenses, as she intends to do nothing, about anything. Wanna join us in moving to get rid of Paxson and making the new provost the new new president?

  2. Be patient, kids! The new provost has only 24 hours a day! On top of the budget crisis, all of the departmental stuff, she got small children! You want to support women in professional careers? Support Vicki! (I’m no friend of any provost, so I think my words carry authenticity!)

    • Professor Ling, I think you’re being a bit patronizing. If you’re suggesting that Provost Colvin’s status as a woman and mother leaves her unable to attend to one of the most crucial aspects of her job, then you’re making a pretty good case for why women and mothers shouldn’t have jobs. Fortunately, I don’t think being a woman and mother prevents her in the slightest. I do, however, think she has her priorities out of order, and needs to quickly remedy Tennis’ concerns.

  3. My opinions on Colvin aside, this is a very well written op-ed.

  4. It’s almost like she doesn’t take UCS any more seriously than the rest of us.

  5. She’s also new to job and probably just trying to get used to Brown and learn as much as she can before jumping into media interviews. Besides, by design, the Provost is more inwardly focused within the University and the President should be more external. Comments aside, I do agree it is a very well written op-ed.

  6. And maybe it is asking too much to expect the provost to carve out time for one individual — especially a student who has been highly critical of her predecessor.

  7. “And maybe it is asking too much to expect the provost to carve out time for one individual — especially a student who has been highly critical of her predecessor.”
    Seriously? Do you think she was warned about you or something? The provost has been at many open forum events, and I have not seen the author engage the provost at any one of them that I’ve been to. This and the op-eds in the ‘series’ hold entirely untenable positions.

  8. Thanks for pointing out top Brown admins’ total lack of transparency. I’ve found Colvin, Paxson and others to be in an up-the-drawbridge, set up the defense mode. As Brown’s budget slips into the red, Brown’s tuitions climb sky-high, and top faculty leave the U, Colvin and Paxson’s response is to stop talking.

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