The Loneliest Guy (Sic) in Town: The Complex World of the Provost

Campus humor includes the stereotype of the chief academic officer as the person following in the wake of the university president who invariably says “yes” to any and all requests, whereas the provost invariably says “no.” There is enough resonance with reality to think that this stereotype - like most stereotypes – holds at least a nugget of truth; all the more so in a time when most institutions struggle financially.

That nugget conjures up the portrait of the chief academic officer as a 21st-century version of the Maytag repairman of the early 1980s television commercial ( the loneliest man (and, in those days, they were all men) in town. But if the dependability of Maytags was the source of the repairman’s solitude, it is the challenge of insufficient resources in the face of ceaseless requests for support that can isolate a provost in these difficult times.

Compounding the challenges of the provost’s job is what we observe as the “cascading” of responsibilities and duties down through the administrative hierarchy of most universities. Whereas presidents once in the not too-distant past actually administered their institutions on a daily basis, many now spend much of their time off campus and engaged with external stakeholders such as potential donors; service on local, state and national commissions and task forces; and lobbying state legislators who can no longer be expected to defer and fulfill the needs of higher education.

As a result, provosts are, in effect, the chief operations officer of many campuses not just in name but in fact. As such, provosts are responsible for all facets of their institutions and the other senior administrators report to provosts. Increasingly, therefore, the knowledge and skills required to be effective in the role exceed purely academic matters and entail experience that goes well beyond that which derives from education and scholarship, the traditional domains from which provosts traditionally come. 

This explains somewhat the increasing numbers of engineering, business and health science faculty occupying the provosts post. Add to this recent years’ exodus of many students from the traditional arts and sciences disciplines to professional fields and the change in academic backgrounds of provosts can be understood.

A shift in backgrounds of provosts also seems to be in part the result of heightened interest in multi- and inter-disciplinary approaches from government funding agencies and private foundations whose leadership and staffs seek projects, research, and teaching and training as more than the province of traditional academic disciplines and fields. And in some cases such as engineering, professional societies are pressing academicians to address “big questions” that do not admit of what is sometimes seen as “narrow” academic foci.

The contemporary provost is also challenged to find resources with which to support graduate education which, in turn, undergirds much of the research done by universities. The lack of tenure-track and full-time faculty positions makes it difficult to promote academic careers when students earning terminal degrees usually struggle to find academic positions. 

Indeed, the issue underlying the difficulties of the provost position remains resources. In less than a half-century, the United States has moved from enthusiastic support and investment in higher education to growing cynicism on the part of those whose choices of priorities are so critical to the academic enterprise. And their doubts about the operation of the academy reflect an understanding of the differences between public and private institutions, but ends up questioning why the costs of education increase regardless of the size of universities’ endowments and “strategic reserve funds” or the economic spinoff to a state from its universities.

Provosts occupy the point of convergence for all of these forces and trends and thus are, like the Maytag repairman, lonely positions. Deans are usually recruited and sustain internal support on the basis of their ability to secure resources “from the administration,” by which is usually meant the provost. Many deans view their jobs in zero-sum terms: anything another dean captures by way of resources necessarily comes at the expense of others, so that the collaboration among colleges and schools being called for by external stakeholders is made more difficult. Provosts can thus find it to be expedient to provide something for everyone even if the something pales in comparison to the ask, the need, or the potential of the undertaking for which resources are sought. Such a response may quiet things for a time but it may also do little to really advance an initiative or the quality of what is being done.

Successful provosts are, first and foremost, superb communicators. They speak or write with clarity at strategic points in their tenures and their institutions’ development and do not flood inboxes with minutia. 

They are at their transparent best when they can present a narrative that explains decisions as flowing from a set of values and priorities that are explicit, consistent, and aligned with what the institution’s president and governing board have made clear are the mission-relevant directions for the near- and mid-term futures. They acknowledge readily their own accountability for the effects of the decisions they make.

Successful provosts are champions of professors, students, and staff members who exemplify the highest standards, not just in the provosts’ eyes, but also in the eyes of one another and their respective peers. They celebrate individual and collective successes in very public ways but are careful to make such occasions triumphs of “us” – by which is meant the institution – as well the persons and units themselves.

The best provosts treat matters such as promotion and tenure, student discipline, and other personnel issues with the utmost respect for privacy, especially when decisions are controversial.

Finally, provosts are at their best when they take risks on behalf of persons and projects in the early stages of careers and activities. Someone once noted that no one is more fundamentally optimistic than farmers and gardeners, teachers, and researchers, but in their “youth” someone has to believe enough in them to take a calculated gamble in favor of the success of those efforts. Good provosts understand and respect the “guild” aspect of the academy and the requirement that one demonstrate mastery. They also invest in those seeking that mastery.

The job of university president remains an admirable profession in the eyes of most people. Presidents at even the largest institutions are known (sometimes vaguely) by name. Provosts, on the other hand, are seldom the object of attention. That, in the end, may be the best recommendation for the post.

Other readings

John Borwick, “What Is a Provost? An Introduction to Administrative and Academic Ranks,” HEIT MANAGEMENT, March 11, 2013 (

“History of Cornell’s Provosts,” see

What Exactly Is A Provost?

If you don’t know what a provost is, you shouldn’t feel bad. With the exception of people who work for a university, the term provost may be a bit of a mystery.

 Source:  Kerri Schuiling - Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of Northern Michigan;




noun: provost; plural noun: provosts

1 1. 
a senior administrative officer in certain colleges and universities.

the head of certain university colleges, especially at Oxford or Cambridge, and public schools.

the head of a chapter in a cathedral.






Share this on
Academic Medicine
Higher Education
Jeffrey Harris
Joann Fax
Eric E. Christ
Dr. Paolo Casali
Dr. Akinlolu Ojo (Lolu)
Dr. Andrea Lindell
Dr. Judy (J.J.) Jackson
Dr. Richard Skinner
James Ryan
Debra Cruce
Jon Schwantes
World Class - Nation's top STEM programs face global recruiting imperative
‘Tis the Season: Seeking Another Provost
Innovators Podcast
Global Offices
offices in countries
IIC Partners Executive Search Worldwide
AESC Member
Copyright © 2019 Harris Search Associates | 06:44:53pm | About Us | Contact Us | Home | Login
Harris Search Associates is a leading global executive search firm. Our higher education and academic medicine practices are focused on identifying and attracting leaders Presidents, Provosts, Deans, Department Chairs, Researchers, and Senior Administrators to support the growth of clients in the areas of research, science, engineering, academic medicine and commercial enterprises. We are the higher education headhunters of choice for universities around the globe.