PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo APRIL 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 8
ALL THE RIGHT MOVES - Engineering deans are increasingly being tapped for the position of provost. Search committees  at a number of universities have discovered the value of an engineer’s skill sets. - By Alvin P. Sanoff - Illustration by Michael Klein

Like many engineering deans, John Anderson of Carnegie Mellon University would receive periodic calls from search firms asking if he wanted to be considered for a high-level administrative post at another institution. But Anderson enjoyed serving as dean at the Pittsburgh university and invariably told the head hunters he was not interested.

Then he received a call that intrigued him. The search firm executive told him that Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland was looking for a provost. Anderson was interested because of the university’s strong academic reputation. The fact that he had relatives living in the Cleveland area was a bonus. Two years ago, he took the position at Case Western. “I felt it was a new challenge, a chance to do something different,” he says.

John Anderson, Case Western, “I felt it was a new challenge, a chance to do something different.”

Anderson is not alone. In the past five years, more than a half dozen engineering deans have become provosts—the chief academic officers of their institutions. Provosts stand second only to the president in most university hierarchies. In addition to Case Western, institutions that now have former engineering deans as provosts include Boston University, Drexel University, the University of California at Merced, the University of Florida, the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Southern California. Another former engineering dean, Linda Katehi, will soon become provost at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

It’s too early to say whether this constitutes a trend, but Robert Atwell, former president of the American Council on Education, who has also been an executive at a higher education search firm, thinks that as more emphasis is placed on the importance of science, more engineering deans will become provosts. Atwell says whether an engineering dean lands the job of provost often depends on which factions within an institution dominate the search process. “If it is dominated by the faculty, an engineering dean probably will not get far because the faculty is probably arts and sciences-oriented,” he says. “But if the board of trustees is dominant, then an engineer has a better shot.”

Historically, engineering deans have had less opportunity to become chief academic officers than deans in the arts and sciences for an obvious reason: Many colleges and universities lack engineering programs. “Search committees are always looking for a fit,” says Madeleine Green, a vice president at the American Council on Education, who is an expert on leadership development. At schools without engineering programs, the fit is not apparent. “Search committees view engineering deans as not enough like them,” explains Green.

Given the importance of fit, it’s no surprise that engineering deans have become provosts at research universities. Many of the institutions are headed by presidents who themselves have backgrounds in engineering or science.

The provosts are discovering that their experience as engineering deans prepared them well for many facets of their jobs. “Engineers tend to be problem solvers, and provosts have to solve a lot of problems,” says Bill Destler, provost at the University of Maryland at College Park since 2001. “The provost’s office is the place where a lot of the most vexing institutional problems come to rest.”

Developing and implementing budgets and strategic plans are a major part of the provost’s job. “When provosts get together, their biggest concerns are budget, budget and budget,” says Anderson, who has had to grapple with a $40 million deficit. Recently, a majority of Case Western’s arts and sciences faculty, who constitute a small part of the university’s professoriate, passed a resolution saying they had no confidence in either the university’s president or Anderson. The faculty members are dissatisfied with the way the budget shortfall has been handled.

In their capacity as engineering deans, the provosts had a great deal of experience wrestling with budgets. “There are some skills that transfer from any level of academic administration,” says David Campbell of Boston University, who was the school’s engineering dean before being elevated to provost last year. Anderson says that he now has deans reporting to him who have the same problems with budget, faculty and other matters that he encountered as dean. A key part of the provost’s responsibilities is ensuring the quality of undergraduate education. Anderson says that, too, is something engineering deans are knowledgeable about, although they often don’t get the credit they deserve for making undergraduate education a priority.

David Campbell, Boston University, “There are some skills that transfer from any level of academic administration.”

A Bigger Stage

For most, moving from engineering dean to provost means adjusting to the much larger scope of the job. There are many more meetings to attend, and the hours are longer. Provosts work 60-70 hours a week, including weekends, and can spend up to 10 hours a day in meetings. “If you are in meetings all the time, you can’t find time to think about the larger issues you would like to address,” Anderson says. “I do my thinking on the weekends and at night.” At Maryland, Destler attended 3,000 meetings last year. He manages to carve out thinking time during regular working hours by keeping meetings brief. His secretary schedules meetings for 30 minutes, but he keeps them shorter. He jokes that he had a meeting with two campus officials and on the way out heard one say to the other, “I can’t believe we got a whole 15 minutes out of him.”

Bill Destler, University of Maryland, “Engineers tend to be problem solvers, and provosts have to solve a lot of problems.”

Consistent with their university-wide responsibilities, the provosts receive more e-mails than they did as deans. Janie Fouke, who left the dean’s position at Michigan State University last year to become provost at the University of Florida, says that “people are conditioned to expect an immediate response to e-mails, so you have to set a rhythm in answering. Otherwise it can totally take over your day.” Fouke, who estimates that she gets 100 e-mails daily, says that when something comes into the office on paper, there are people who track it and she may never see it. “But if you don’t have someone to track e-mails, then the whole burden falls on you.”

Janie Fouke, University of Florida, “People ...expect an immediate response to e-mails, so you have to set a rhythm in answering.”

Perhaps the most significant differences in scope between the two jobs are that the budgets are usually much larger and the entire faculty falls under a provost’s purview. Anderson went from handling a budget of $90 million at Carnegie Mellon to dealing with a budget in excess of $700 million at Case Western. As engineering dean at Maryland, Destler supervised a $100 million budget. He is now responsible for a budget of $1.2 billion.

“The range of the provost’s job is so large,” Destler says. “Almost everything important at an institution involves the provost in some way. The campus has 300 buildings, and I drive around and think to myself, ‘I can’t really be trying to manage this thing.’ ”

But not all the provosts have found that there is a significant difference in scope. Steve Director, who moved last year from the University at Michigan at Ann Arbor to Drexel University in Philadelphia, says the engineering school’s budget at Michigan is larger than the academic budget at Drexel. At the same time, the size of the faculty at Drexel is larger. Unlike Michigan, many of those faculty members are on contracts rather than on the tenure track, and that presents a different set of issues for Director. “It provides a challenge to ensure that these faculty who contribute so much to the educational experience of our students feel they are strong members of the academic community,” he says.

David Ashley of the University of California at Merced is also dealing with a smaller budget as provost than he did as engineering dean at Ohio State University, but that is a result of a special set of circumstances that won’t last long. Merced is the newest comprehensive campus in the University of California system and admitted its first class last fall. Ashley has had to not only run a campus but also help build one. “When I came in five years ago, we did not have any of the academic structure in place,” he says. “We created three schools and hired deans and a vice chancellor and worked with the deans to hire faculty.” About five dozen faculty members have been hired for the university, which includes an engineering school, and more are on the way.

David Ashley, University of California at Merced, “Any provost who comes in with a disdainful attitude toward other disciplines will fail.”

Ashley brought some of his engineering background to bear in helping build the campus from scratch. “There is more planning and problem solving than in a typical provost’s job,” he observes. One major problem occurred in the days before the campus officially opened. The original plan called for three academic buildings to be ready when students arrived, but only one was. “We had to do contingency planning and figure out different ways to deliver instruction,” he recalls. “We reconfigured the library to hold all our classes.”

Ashley’s situation may be unusual, but it is common for provosts to deal with virtually every facet of a university. “It is a huge job fraught with controversy from top to bottom,” says Atwell. “Provosts have to make sure the institution is running smoothly, that it is hiring the right people and paying sufficient attention to the students. In some respects, it is a tougher job than being president. The main job of a president is raising money, while provosts have to keep the peace on campus.”

To be successful, Anderson says, provosts have to be secure in what they achieved as faculty members before they became administrators “because people will challenge you,” which has certainly happened at Case Western. Provosts also need to understand details without micromanaging. “Having a bean counter as provost is a disaster,” he says.

A major challenge is dealing with a wide array of academic disciplines. Provosts say that if they are not sensitive to differences among disciplines, that can become a problem. “Any provost who comes in with a disdainful attitude toward other disciplines will fail,” says Ashley. Destler says that provosts who come from engineering are “seen as not being from the intellectual heart of the campus—the arts and sciences.” Atwell, in fact, recommends that engineering deans-turned-provosts “make peace with the arts and sciences people who feel they get the short end of the stick while business, law, medicine and engineering get all the money.”

Destler believes it is crucial to understand that different disciplines have different “needs and expectations” than engineers are accustomed to. In engineering, promotion may be based in large part on the quality of journal articles, while in some disciplines it is based on the quality of books. Other disciplines also have different expectations for bringing in research support. Professors in modern languages might not be expected to bring in research dollars, while engineering faculty members are expected to do so. That can translate into more substantial teaching loads for faculty members in the humanities and social sciences than for those in engineering.

That’s Not What I Meant

Provosts have to adapt in other ways. Anderson says that “engineering faculty and student bodies tend to be quite homogeneous in their culture and thinking, so you are used to developing arguments for that group. But as provost, you are working with a very heterogeneous group.” Communication can be a challenge. “Engineers tend to be more direct in how they express themselves” than nonengineering faculty members may be accustomed to, says Anderson. “You have to be mindful of how people in the arts and humanities view what you say. When I say something, it might be interpreted differently by people outside of engineering.”

As part of their job, provosts generally sign off on new hires and tenure decisions, but that can often be a formality. The key decisions are usually made by the department and dean involved. However, at Boston University, the provost goes to hear a lecture by every faculty member who is up for tenure. Campbell calls the experience “incredibly exhilarating. It is like going back to school, but they are paying me to do it.”

While the job of provost has many similarities across institutions, there are differences between being second in command at a public university as opposed to a private university. While provosts at privates can focus most of their energies on campus, provosts at public institutions find that they often need to play a role in dealing with politics and its consequences. Fouke says that in Florida, “the relationship between the legislature and institutions of higher education is more tightly interwoven than any at state I have seen or heard about.” As a result, she finds herself having to stay on top of the various mandates of the legislature. Ashley says that in California, he is much more involved in politics than he was as Ohio State’s dean, in large part because the appropriation for the new campus is a line item in the state budget.

But every private institution has its own set of issues that provosts have to deal with. Anderson has had to get up to speed on the complexities of general education at Case Western. At an engineering school, he explains, deans do not have to spend much time figuring out faculty teaching assignments because everything is well-developed. But that’s not true at Case Western, which is experimenting with a seminar-based approach to general education in which engineering faculty members might be called on to teach nonengineers. The time involved in preparing for and teaching a general education course can have an impact on the time a faculty member has available for other teaching and for research. Ultimately, the provost might end up having to help figure out a solution to conflicting priorities.

Balancing Act

At Drexel, Director faces the challenge of helping an ambitious institution, best known for its program of cooperative education, attain a higher level of academic quality with only a modest endowment to draw from. “It is a matter of building quality using the resources available, while at the same time increasing resources to allow for improving and increasing programs,” he explains. Like most engineering deans who have become provosts, Director was hired from outside the institution. Maryland’s Destler is an exception. He has spent his entire academic career at Maryland and believes that few provosts are promoted from within because deans who have significant accomplishments to their credit often have had to step on some toes along the way and, therefore, have enemies on the campus. As a consequence, he says, “it is sometimes easier to move up to the next level by changing institutions.”

Steve Director, Drexel University, “It is a matter of building quality using the resources available, while at the same time increasing resources to allow for improving and increasing programs.”

Whether some of the current crop of provosts decide to eventually seek a presidency is, of course, impossible to tell. For now, the provosts have their hands full meeting the myriad responsibilities that go with the job of serving as their institution’s chief academic officer.

Still, a recent survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that 32 percent of college presidents had previously been provosts, so there is a good possibility that at least a few of these provosts will eventually ascend to the top of the ladder. Certainly, there is ample precedent. The presidents of Stanford and Boston University are among those who went from being engineering deans to provosts and then became leaders of their institutions. Fouke may reflect the thoughts of her colleagues when she says, “I never in my life thought about my next step until I became provost. Now I am beginning to think if I do this well, I can do other things, too.”

Alvin P. Sanoff is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.


ALL THE RIGHT MOVES - By Alvin P. Sanoff
SHAKY GROUND - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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