Ds Scholarship

Why I’m Moving Back to Administration

A close family member tried to argue me out of it. “You have a great job,” he said. “You do what you want. Your family is close by. You’re building a successful business. Why would you do it?” The “it” in question: exchanging the relatively independent life of a tenured professor to return to the maelstrom that is higher-education administration in 2022.

Disregarding his sound and well-intentioned advice, I will become provost of the University of Tulsa on July 1. I’m leaving a job where I’m in the middle of things I love — teaching, doing research, serving my profession, and building a business around faculty academic leadership — to go back to the campus leadership realm that I left (involuntarily) in 2017.

In exchanging a huge public university for a small, private one, I will be moving up the administrative ladder. But in some ways, I will also be moving back — both to the middle of the country and to the R2 institutional category. My first academic position out of graduate school was as an assistant professor at Marquette University, a medium-sized private doctoral university in Milwaukee that was designated R2 (“high research activity”). Since then, I’ve been at huge public R1s (“very high research activity”): Louisiana State, the University of Missouri, and, most recently, Arizona State. My current university has 130,000 students; my future one, 4,000.

I was a dean at both Missouri (2010-13) and Arizona State (2013-17), but for nearly five years now my title has been simply professor of English. I haven’t been completely out of the admin game, since I have been writing and
consulting about the faculty path to leadership. And it’s been a good few years. But I never wanted out of administration back in 2017, so it’s no surprise that I want back in. I see some good I can do as a provost, both for the institution and for the profession.

Starting this month, and with the blessing of my new employer, I will be exploring the role of provost in a series of columns for The Chronicle. I’ll also document what it means to move into a leadership position at a new university. Inevitably, I’ll make mistakes, I’ll misunderstand the environment, and I’ll struggle at times to make decisions that are the best for the unique institution that I’m joining.

Accepting this job offer wasn’t really a difficult decision. I have dedicated my life to the full mission of contemporary higher education. Part of that mission, for any of us lucky enough to be employed in the academy, is to ensure the existence of colleges and universities for the future — preserving both individual campuses as well as the uniquely powerful range of institutions, public and private, that make up American higher education. My commitment to my campuses, and to higher education more broadly, feels like a very satisfying extension of my commitment to my students and my research field. And the job of provost is perhaps the most important, influential, and distinctly academic job in higher-education administration.

It’s a position that is poorly understood, even by faculty and staff members, let alone by students, trustees, or local citizens. On most campuses, the provost leads the academic enterprise — the role often carries an additional (and more comprehensible) title of vice president for academic affairs. The provost is usually seen as the No. 2 leader behind the president. Yet in our external complex institutions, the provost is one of a number of vice presidents. Some offices that used to report to the No. 2 are now reporting directly to the president, perhaps with a dotted-line connection to the provost.

So the provost is in the middle of things on a campus, serving on the president’s cabinet and as the administration’s main conduit to the faculty, the students, and the academic staff.

I was attracted to the University of Tulsa by what I see as its strong strategic position: a healthy endowment, an excellent faculty (including in my subspeciality in English), and an almost unique mix of small liberal-arts-college attention to students with the resources of a successful private research university.

Of course loyal readers of The Chronicle may also have read about a controversial 2019 strategic plan that aims to reshape many aspects of the university’s academic structure and educational mission, cutting some liberal-arts majors and shoring up STEM fields. Dubbed “True Commitment,” the plan angered faculty members and led to administrative turnover. Some of the plan was implemented, and some of its implemented elements have been, or are being, reassessed and, in some cases, reversed. The university adopted a new strategic plan in 2021based on the same premises as “True Commitment” but in place the current structure of leavings and departments.

Six months after announcing the new strategic plan, the university welcomed a new president: Brad Carson, a Tulsa native, a former congressman, and a former Pentagon under secretary. In the past six months, he has gained the trust of the faculty, but he also faces some of the same enrollment and tuition pressures affecting many private universities, particularly in the Midwest. As provost I will be at the center of many of the issues facing higher education as I work with the administration and the faculty to shape an institution with a proud history and an uncertain future.

This spring I will be wrapping things up here at Arizona State while working hard to understand the campus I’ll be joining. I’ll also be working hard to figure out the hows, whats, whens, and even whys of leaving my family in Phoenix and moving to a city I visited for the first time just two months ago.

My family has been supportive — my spouse, a colleague of mine in ASU’s English department, and my youngest son, who will be a high-school senior next year, have work of their own to accomplish in the coming academic year. One, or both, or neither will join me in Tulsa in 2023. I will be moving to the Midwest alone, just as I did back in 1995 when I joined the Marquette faculty in Milwaukee, also a city I had barely visited up to point. (Back then, we were engaged to be married; now, we are confronting the joys, and terrors, of the impending empty nest.)

In my next column I’ll describe the “getting to know you” stage of moving to a new university as provost. Getting to know the institution means learning about the problems — and the opportunities — that lie behind the website, the strategic plan, and even the extensive tables of data that are already being shared with me at a dizzying rate. It also means getting to know the people — the faculty, staff, students, and communities that the institution serves, and that are invested in the university and its success.

In subsequent columns, I’ll describe, as I dig in, the provost’s-eye view of a university that is figuring out — like so much of higher education lately — not only how to achieve success, but what “success” means for the institution and its people. I’ll share the good and the bad, hoping that there will be more of the former than the latter, but understanding that in these complex times, the outcomes are uncertain regardless of the best efforts of people of good will and strong talent.


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