Wanna be a provost? If so, it may help you to know more about just what the job entails.

III-defined role of the provost

The role of a provost actually is somewhat ill-defined. At some level, it is whatever the president or chancellor wants it to be. Presidents often will delegate to provosts tasks that they do not want to do or that they see as outside their skill set. So provosts need to be ready to be something of a jack-of-all-trades.

The most important relations for provosts are typically with the president and the chief business (or financial) officer. Both are ill-defined. Consider each in turn.

In theory, provosts often are the right-hand man or woman of the president. In practice, this may or may not be so. Presidents may have some other vice president (e.g., of finance, operations, legal or whatever) on whom they rely more, or may end up relying more on a chief of staff. It can be frustrating to feel bypassed, but it is the presidents’ prerogative to rely on whomever they choose for daily advice.

Having a close working relationship with the president is essential. Provosts need to be able to communicate well with their presidents and be able to follow their general lead. If you find your values in conflict with those of your institution’s president, start looking for another job.

Presidents also differ in the extent to which they will want or even allow you to be in the limelight. Best practice is to focus your attention on making the president (and the college or university) rather than yourself look good. The job of a provost simply does not typically have the same public visibility as the job of a president or even a dean.

It is not uncommon for the provost and the chief business officer to find their working relationship to be less than totally smooth. The reason is that it is not always entirely clear who does what. I found it helpful initially to discuss with the chief business officer what our respective roles would be and then to work on maintaining the division of labor we agreed upon.

In our case, my responsibility was more with setting priorities for academic spending, his with finding the money and making sure expenditures were properly budgeted.

Scope of responsibility

As a provost, your scope includes many areas outside your expertise. So you must create a great team. You need to decide for yourself if you are comfortable making decisions that affect areas about which you know little and whether you have the skills to construct a team that you can trust.

When you start as a provost, the greatest likelihood is that your team of direct reports will appear to you as a mixed bag. Are you able to make tough decisions about whom to keep and whom to let go? Are you able to ask people to step down while enabling them to retain their dignity and public reputation? Do you have the skills needed to create a really strong team?

Relations between deans and provosts depend largely on the centralization of power within the institution. At one extreme, the management structure and budget are highly centralized. At the other extreme, the deans are wholly responsible for their own decisions and budgets (“responsibility-centered management,” or “RCM”), with “each tub on its own bottom.”

You need to make sure you understand the division of responsibility at your institution before becoming a provost. If you are not comfortable with that division, you may try to change it, but that is no easy task.

Being in charge vs. supporting others

As a provost, unlike as a dean, you typically are not directly running anything. You are responsible for academic affairs at the college or university, but in most instances, your influence is indirect rather than direct.

You typically work through the deans, and sometimes associate provosts, rather than on your own. Although your control is indirect, it extends over a wider span of academic activities than does the control of a dean.

Some provosts, having recently been deans, miss the direct control they had as a dean and attempt to micromanage the deans who report to them. This is a sure recipe for failure.

As a provost, you will see deans make mistakes, some of which you may have tried unsuccessfully to prevent. You may then have to do cleanup. In doing so, you must be careful not to undermine the authority of the dean. If faculty members see you as covertly taking on the role of the dean, knowing the academic hierarchy, they may stop paying much attention to the dean. You then may find that other deans will stay away from you for fear that they too will be undermined.

As a provost, you are likely to receive any number of requests to approve projects that are good ideas but that you cannot afford to fund. Work with the proposers of such projects to find the funds to back them, or else to back out of the project gracefully. You need to acknowledge not only what more you can do, but also the limits of what you can do with the budget you have or can create.

Relations with other key players in academe

At various times, you probably will find yourself having conflicts with subordinate administrators and with faculty. In these cases, it is tempting to use your position of power as a provost to try to resolve the conflicts. But those who flaunt their position authority lose their moral authority, which is the main basis of power in a university. Having a touch that is soft but firm generally works better than trying to show people who’s boss.

Communication is especially important for a provost because so much of the job is exercised through others. Do not hide out in your office with a few trusted advisors or continually leave it to others to communicate your decisions.

In the absence of communication, people will start to invent things. It is essential that you stay in close communication with those you are responsible for and that you be perceived as in touch with the realities on the ground.

To succeed in your endeavors, try to ensure there is some other individual or group that gets the credit. View your role as defining what the important academic problems are to be solved. Then, to create a broad-based sense of intellectual ownership, create task forces of relevant stakeholders to propose solutions to the problems. If the report of a task force is more conceptual than operational, create an implementation task force to recommend concrete steps for operationalizing the solutions.

The solution proposed by the task force may not be what you hoped for. In these instances, remember that, for most faculty members, process trumps outcome. You will get much more flak if your process is seen as flawed or non-consultative than you will if the solution is seen as less than perfect. You always can steer the solution in a better direction at the time of operationalization. Or, in my case, I have used the faculty council, provost’s council (composed of all VPs, associate VPs and deans), and deans’ council (composed of all deans) to tweak the recommendations and help to optimize them.

Be careful to be fair. In particular, do not favor or disfavor the college/school you originally came from.

Role of fundraising and other external commitments

Provosts often are more internally focused than deans because they must complement presidents, who typically are quite externally oriented. The provost needs to be around enough to manage internal matters.

If you do fundraising, you must be careful not to be perceived as stealing donors from the deans. Worse, never risk taking donors from the president. Carve out a niche in fundraising where either you are perceived as supporting the president and the deans or else are doing fundraising for academic affairs in ways that clearly will be of benefit to the whole college or university.

Conclusion

If the role of provost does not sound right for you, consider being (or remaining) a dean or faculty member — or even aim directly for a presidency. But if being a provost sounds intriguing and right for you, go for it. It is immensely rewarding.

About the author

Robert J. Sternberg became president of the University of Wyoming on July 1. Before that, he spent five years as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and three years as provost and senior vice president at Oklahoma State University. Email him at robert.sternberg@uwyo.edu.