University launches search for provost

Correction appended

A nationwide search for the University’s first chief academic officer and provost position began this week when a committee of administrators and consultants assembled for the first time on Monday.

After the University announced the retirement of longtime Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Lehman in June, Knapp took the opportunity to adjust the organization of the University’s highest level. Knapp will remove the title of provost from Vice President of Health Affairs John “Skip” Williams job description and give the second-in-command title to whomever is hired as Lehman’s replacement.

Williams and Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak – who will both serve as senior vice provosts once Lehman officially retires on Dec. 31, 2010 – will report both to Knapp and the new provost once he or she is hired.

Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed and a higher education expert, said that since Knapp’s predecessor, former University President Steven Joel Trachtenberg, served for nearly two decades, a new hierarchy may take some time to get used to. Since last year, Knapp has moved the human resources and information technology departments under a different vice president and created a new position of vice president for external relations, which now oversees all communications, government affairs and media relations. In addition, all departments related to safety and security have been reorganized under one associate vice president.

“When you have a president for 19 years, there is a structure that goes up around him that mirrors how that president likes to work,” Jaschik said. “But it is not surprising that a new president would like to structure things differently.”

Jaschik said that while about half of the universities with large medical centers like GW have the top administrator of their medical school act as provost, far more institutions have their chief academic officer serve with that title. Taking the provost title from Williams and giving it to Lehman’s replacement, then, is hardly unusual.

“It’s not as if he is creating a combined provost and head basketball coach position,” Jaschik said.

Chernak said most, if not all, of the services his department currently provides will continue, adding that the department will be more “fine-tuned.” After the new provost is hired, Chernak’s new title will include the areas of “student affairs, enrollment management, and athletics.”

The idea to shift the departmental structure was not merely a command from Knapp, Chernak said. A similar proposal was first brought up in a two-year self-study conducted by SASS and presented to Knapp close to the time when he took office, Chernak said.

“We felt we could better capitalize on synergies between academic affairs and student affairs that better mirror the way the students actually go about their GW careers,” Chernak said. He mentioned some middle-ground services such as developmental needs, disability support services, educational living, special academic advising, community service, public service and career development.

Chernak said he was excited to expand his portfolio after more than 20 years at the University. Knapp said Chernak will report to him as well as directly to the new provost and Chernak said he was comfortable with the impending changes.

“What specific departments and duties will be in my portfolio depends on when the successful search concludes,” Chernak said. “There are three categories: academic, student life and then the middle ground. We will examine those possibilities more as the year evolves.”

Chernak added, “Honestly, you go through same cycles after 21 years. This gives me a chance to refresh and undertake new challenges and opportunities. This may be the twilight of my career, but I don’t just want to go through the motions.”

The provost selection committee members include representatives from each of the University’s schools, including deans David Dolling and Michael Brown and Senior Vice President and General Counsel Beth Nolan. The committee will be chaired by Forrest Maltzman, a faculty member, and will call on the help of consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates for their national search. Knapp said both external and internal candidates will be considered.

In an interview shortly after Lehman’s retirement was announced this summer, Knapp said that since he frequently travels for University business and has a wide variety of responsibilities, there needs to be a person who is more consistently on campus that helps student affairs and academic affairs coordinate. Before, both SASS and Academic Affairs reported directly to Knapp.

“The provost is the one who acts like the president when the president is away,” Knapp said, noting that he was often called to act and help coordinate when he was provost at John Hopkins University.

In an interview this summer, Williams said he does not view his new title as a demotion, and Knapp said Williams would remain a key player and part of the senior leadership.

“[The title change] doesn’t bother me,” Williams said. “I’ll have a chance to focus on my main duties as vice president for health affairs.”

Lehman said he is ready to retire after 14 years as the University chief academic officer, and noted the average time nationally in his position is just five years. The former physics professor said he may have considered leaving earlier if was not for the Science and Engineering Complex and strategic plan.

“My work with the Science and Engineering Complex strategic plan – that’s what’s kept me in the business,” he said. Lehman will continue to serve as a special adviser to Knapp on the science and engineering project until June of next year.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: (Sept. 17, 2009)

The Hatchet erroneously reported that Executive Vice President Donald Lehman will retire on Dec. 10. He will officially retire next year, on Dec. 31, 2010.

Sept. 18, 2009
Due to confusion during an interview, the article previously stated that Ilene Nagel was the chairman of the search committee.

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