Most people have probably given little thought to the role of a university provost. Even Webster’s description of the title affords only six words: “a high-ranking university administrative officer.” This short phrase is egregiously inadequate in describing the true importance of the provost position.
As Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman prepares to step down from his post, GW is in the midst of searching for his replacement – and the person who fills Lehman’s shoes will also assume the title of provost. The pool has been narrowed down from more than 200 nominees to around five finalists, we learned this week. When the committee makes its final decision in the coming months, it is essential that the selection committee be conscious of both the specific challenges the new provost will face and what skills will be most valuable for the University in the coming years.
The selection of Vice President for Health Affairs John Williams as the University’s current provost was an unorthodox choice – typically, a provost is the lead university representative on academic affairs. The hiring of a new provost is coupled with administrative changes that will make the structure of GW’s highest echelons akin to a more common university model.
At the top of the new provost’s priorities should be revamping the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ academic advising system. The search committee has asked candidates directly about how they might address the issue, and University President Steven Knapp said he views dealing with advising as part of one of a provost’s main roles. Both of these are positive mindsets. Still, we feel advising is not only a crucial aspect that needs addressing, but the primary challenge of whomever accepts the provost position. Unfortunately, in recent years, we have not seen Lehman make substantive progress toward improving advising in his role as the top academic administrator. The new provost needs to view improving this system as necessary to having a successful tenure at GW.
Knapp has been extremely involved in the search for what he views as his second-in-command. It is good that Knapp has invested himself in the search, and it is important that he, and the search committee as a whole, remember that the selection of a provost is an opportunity to fulfill deficits in the current administration. In our view, Knapp has a mixed record on both interaction with students and managerial accomplishments on issues like dining and advising. We see his tenure as reflective of an academic put into a position that demands more than traditional academic skills, and the new provost should demonstrate the kind of skills that the current administration has sometimes lacked.
Futhermore, the search committee needs to be aware of the time frame they expect the provost to serve. If the Board of Trustees wants the next provost to fill in the administration’s gaps and stay at GW for a long time, then that needs to be considered in the selection process. The president and provost will need to be able to work as a team, and as with any situation, a well-rounded team is better. Additionally, Knapp’s term is up in the next few years, and whether or not he is expected to continue on as president should play a role in this decision.
Though the provost’s role may currently be abstract to much of the student experience, this should not be the case after this selection is made. If the search committee keeps in mind the challenges the new provost will face, we expect to find a good fit.
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