‘Tis the Season: Seeking Another Provost

As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
the search for another provost and all that entails returns.

Apology to Rudyard Kipling
The Gods of the Copybook Headings

Provost image.jpegEven as a few printed programs left over from the recent commencement flutter about campus and the quiet is interrupted mostly by the sound of lawn mowers, a significant number of colleges and universities are beginning to prepare to launch yet another search for a new provost, the incumbent having chosen to return to a faculty position or departing to a new institution, sometimes as its president. With an average tenure in office of less than five years, provosts change much more often than do presidents and are not all that much more persistent than department chairs.

When people think of the rites and customs of academe, it’s not likely they associate the terms with the second-ranking administrative position on a campus or think of the seemingly regular search to fill the job as an academic tradition. But so frequently do provosts go and come that templates for conducting searches for provosts are ready to hand and well-worn from frequent prior use.

This is a brief report on the characteristics of the people who serve as university provosts: who they are, where they come from, and, yes, how long they occupy the position. The findings are buttressed by very similar results obtained from studies the data for which are as current as spring 2019 and from as far back as 2001. Moreover, the findings converge to an regardless of which institutional types are the foci of the studies.

provost-banner-sm.jpgThe context of this report is one in which forecasts for the next decade are for a larger-than-usual exit of presidents from colleges and universities and provosts, the most plausible of candidates to replace presidents, declining interest in the presidency.

Studies of Provosts/Chief Academic Officers (CAOs)

Cejda and Rewey (2001) used data produced by applying the instrument the American Council on Education (ACE) employed in national surveys of the career experiences of academic presidents. Data collection was undertaken in 1997 by a mailed survey to all institutions listed in the 1994 Carnegie classification of colleges and universities, with a follow-up conducted in 1998 by fax and telephone. The total number of usable surveys was 971.

The findings reported by Cejda and Rewey are particularly useful in that they report both aggregate results as well results broken out by Carnegie institutional types, as do Eckel, Cool and King in their 2009 study discussed immediately below.

Two studies were published in 2009: one by Eckel, Cook and King, The CAO Census: A National Profile of Chief Academic Officers, and the other by Berliner et al. who used the data from The CAO Census to inform commentary by the authors, all of whom were provosts. The data were produced by a national survey totaling 1,715 CAOs from both two- and four-year institutions.

In 2010 Hartley and Goldin published A Study of Chief Academic Officers of Independent Colleges and Universities, again using The CAO Census and comparing 358 CAOs of the Council of Independent Colleges member institutions with four groups: public baccalaureate and Master’s level institutions, private doctoral universities, public doctoral universities, and public two-year colleges.

Information about provosts from still another a distinctive group of institutions appeared in a 2019 article by June and Bauman and derived from 201 current and former provosts who filled the position on either a permanent or interim basis over a ten-year period at the 60 American institutions who make up most of the members of the Association of American Universities (AAU).

The sixth study examined some of the same attributes of provosts/CAOs from the previous five analyses but focused on the 131 institutions that make up the category of R1: Doctoral Universities – “Highest Research Activity” in the revised Carnegie classification system. Data were gathered from the universities’ official websites during April-May, 2019.

These six studies overlap one another in terms of sources of information about provosts and therefore could be expected to resemble one another to a degree. Such is the case here.

However, the degree of convergence among the studies encourages confidence in the assertion that the post of provost has been, is and is likely to continue to be an administrative position typically held for a limited term by individuals, most of whom- perhaps as much as two-thirds of them - do not aspire to a long tenure in the post or in taking on an academic presidency. There will, of course, be exceptions as there has been for more than twenty years now. After all, the provost/CAO continues to be the more frequent waystation by which today’s presidents traveled.

But if this assertion is an accurate description and prediction, the time seems right to acknowledge this feature of higher education and make adjustments, some of which are suggested below.

A Comparison of Findings from Studies of the Provost/CAO

A Comparison of Studies of the Provost/CAO


% internal hire 53 52 53 65 57
% Women  25 40 38 25* 14
% persons of color 8 14 9 <10*  10
Avg. years as provost 5 4.7 4.3 5* 3.7
No. of doctorates earned from different institutions Not available Not available Not available 62 AAU members (88%) 67 (51%)
Doctorate in Humanities, social sciences (58%) Education, social sciences, humanities/fine arts (73%) Humanities/fine arts, social sciences, education (73%) STEM (<50%*), engineering (16%)* STEM (43%), (engineering 17%)
Prior position Dean (36%) Dean (27%) Academic other (50%) Dean*(50%) Dean (39%)
Sample n 971 1,715 1,140 [358] 201 131

 *Calculated based on inference from authors’ wording (e.g., “AAU members’ permanent provosts were internal hires, more often than not, with nearly two-thirds of them moving into the job that way” (June and Bauman, 2019). Actual numerical values not available from source.

This table summarizes pertinent findings from the several studies discussed above. Cejda and Rewey’s (2001) analysis of the demographic profiles of provosts across eight Carnegie institutional types then in use led the researchers to conclude, “With only slight variances among the percentages, [the] demographic characteristics are similar for each of the respective Carnegie classifications” (page 15). Does that same pattern pertain to today?

office of the provost image 2.jpg

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