Making Soup from Rain: My Year as Provost
A year ago I found myself serving as my university’s interim provost. After six years as a dean, I had been enjoying a sabbatical, a quiet time of writing, reading, and preparing for re-entry to teaching. I had grown tired of the administrative life and its seemingly endless series of problems to solve.
I succumbed to a persuasive president and the opportunity to see how the university worked at a different level. I knew the challenges: the university was coming out of a retrenchment and reorganization. There were fewer people to do the same work; there were new departments and budget processes. A bargaining contract needed to be negotiated and we were up for a 10-year reaccreditation site visit. Nevertheless, I was able to enjoy my year as provost, and I took away a dozen lessons.
- Learn the rules. Your best resources will be the institution’s procedures. Three-quarters of the issues I encounter are resolved by carefully reading the Faculty Senate Bylaws, the bargaining agreement, and the state administrative rules for higher education. From teaching assignments to promotion guidelines to evaluations and salary calculations, most questions can be answered by checking these documents first.
- Document things for your successor. I had three wooden boxes on my desk. One, always full, was for things coming in. To its left was a box for things going out; usually it didn’t get filled until the weekend. The third box was for things the next provost needed to know. These included special commitments, future problems, policy exceptions, and useful contacts. Who do you call for legal advice? How are new programs proposed? How do you cancel classes when it snows?
- Find opportunity in the ordinary things. As any “Dilbert” reader can attest, large organizations run chaotically. Administrators spend a lot of time at meetings in which the same material is re-presented and they spend time as institutional eye candy. It’s easy to feel you are not getting anything done. But you can avoid feeling frustrated if you select a few things to accomplish, and use meetings to underline themes and events to promote the institution. A campus meeting at which nothing happens can serve to reinforce a key message, and an off-campus grip-and-grin event may help position the institution. Take your victories where you can.
- Listen to the music of the institution. As teachers we train ourselves to guide the class, not just to lecture to it. In getting things done institutionally, the same approach often works best: set the agenda, define issues with data, advance some proposals and supposals, get out of the way, summarize when possible, and set benchmarks. The process is a little slower than just mandating change, and the result is often not exactly what you initially envisioned. But it’s worth doing and many more people are invested in the solution.
- Answer emails strategically. Part of listening is responding to email. Your inbox will never be empty, and you’ll be cc’ed on more things than you really need to know. People will feel ignored—or worse—if you don’t reply. Often the best strategy is simply to reply, “I’ll give you a call about that” or “Let’s add it to the agenda next time we meet” (it may be a non-issue by then). And don’t bother trying to file emails into more than just a few gross categories. You always end up relying on the search feature anyway.
- Think about gaps and about pace. As real people cope with deadlines, scarce resources, interruptions, and change, mistakes are inevitable. Some grow into messes. Often, though, the underlying cause is that our policies and procedures are ever-changing, poorly documented, misunderstood, and inaccessible. As you discover gaps, convene the right people to make policy consistent, and train staff before confusion drifts into dysfunction. And you can help by finding ways to set the pace of an institution’s work so that it is less frenzied and people are less frazzled.
- Work as part of a team. Part of the job of the provost is to argue positions and policy in the executive group. How should we distribute revenue, by average tuition or actual? Should our tuition plateau be removed? What should our transfer policy be? How should we respond to a state mandate? If you are well prepared and effective in the small group, decisions will reflect your ideas. If you listen carefully to the other vice presidents, your ideas will reflect their insight. But whatever the result of vigorous discussions, you’ve got to adjust and advocate for the result. Deans can raise their eyebrows, but provosts need to own the institution’s decisions.
- Talk to other provosts. Once a month, all the provosts in my state higher education system get together to review academic policy issues, vet programs, and to try to shape our system’s academic agenda. With seven institutions of various sizes and ambitions, I had expected intrigue over spheres of influence and colonization. Instead, I found a support group willing to collaborate, cooperate, and commiserate. We all had the same problems, the same experiences, and the same interests in improving our system. And we were all much too busy to try to make trouble for one another.
- Think locally. Many days you are simply hitting the ball back across the net. You respond to problems, requests, and questions, and try to be clear and not set bad precedents. But occasionally—and more often than you might think—you have an opportunity to make small but significant changes in the institution. If you approach administration by asking what kind of institution you want to work in as a faculty member, you will often know exactly what to do. It may be as simple as clarifying the way that professional instructor lines are established, rebranding the “dead week” before finals, or supporting a research day or college hour, but smalls acts can set long-term changes into motion.
- It’s just business. Denying my request for a replacement position, another provost once told me, “Don’t take it personally. It’s just business.” As provost, you get many requests, and they will be about the darnedest things. Many have to be deferred, denied, or delayed, and it’s important to be able to say no in a way that doesn’t say an idea has no value. Couch your decisions in terms of the institution’s priorities (“How does this enhance student success, enrollment, faculty development, pride in the institution?”) and accountability (“How will we know this is a good investment?”), and you’ll be able to justify your decisions to the faculty and to yourself.
- There’s no time to be a lame duck. For a brief moment I imagined that my time as provost would consist of a six-month honeymoon followed by six months of irrelevance. But there was no way to defer key institutional decisions. As an interim administrator, you need to get up to speed quickly on financial and personnel matters; consult broadly with deans and directors to scout for unintended consequences; and then recommend, implement, and document changes. Ask questions, then plunge in. Your mistakes can almost always be fixed.
- Make soup from rain. A friend of mine once described academic administration as “mime for the blindfolded,” an image she thought captured both its esteem and its effectiveness. It’s an understandable sentiment. But administration is only mime if you let it be. It is incremental work—political, economic, social, and philosophical craft. Oregon’s poet laureate, Lawson Inada, once wrote of his immigrant grandmother, that she was a woman who could “make soup from rain.” Like Inada’s grandmother, university administrators are cooks who can often create sustenance from found ingredients. That’s not a bad aspiration to have as a provost, interim, or
Edwin L. Battistella is a professor of English and writing at Southern Oregon University.
Reprinted from “Making Soup from Rain: My Year as Provost” in Academic Leader 25.5(2009)1,6 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.