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On Not Aspiring to the Presidency

 

Wendy K. Wilkins

 

As a new chief academic officer (CAO) several years ago, I attended ACE’s annual CAO Institute. One of the discussion topics involved advancing to the presidency. Most of the new provosts in the room seemed interested in the topic, recognizing that their positions could (and perhaps should) be considered a stepping stone to the presidency.

Surveys now show that fewer and fewer CAOs and provosts wish to become presidents. Given the natural progression between the two offices, the question is “why?”

I certainly believe experience as provost can provide valuable training for an aspiring president. However, I personally also believe that service as the senior academic officer is preferable to service as a president.

The work of the provost directly affects teaching, service, and, for my university and others, research and creative activity at the institution. I prefer to focus my attention toward activities that directly engage faculty and students. By contrast, the presidency is increasingly an externally focused position.

There is another contrast in how these two types of leaders allocate their time. From serving as CA O at two different institutions, I know how busy a provost’s life can be. The work can fill all available days and hours. Now that I have become one of the “seasoned” provosts, I counsel those who are new in the position to preserve time for exercise, leisure, family, and friends. It may not always be easy, but I believe striking that balance is critical to professional and personal well-being. My personal indulgence involves “equine therapy,” during which I can be found training and riding my Arabian mare.

But such precious personal time is increasingly unavailable to a president; the presidency has become a 24/7/365 activity. The average college or university president takes calls virtually every waking hour. Whatever the meeting or event, it is noticed if the president does not attend. The pressure to be everywhere at all times is considerable. This holds true for both academic events and nonacademic social occasions.

In most university or college communities, it is known when and where the president eats, shops, and travels. As such, the president must always be “on.” It is almost impossible to be incognito anywhere close to home; perceptions can even form about the president playing favorites among local businesses, even if it is not true or merely a function of one’s individual habits. On the other hand, the provost, in my experience, can move about the community without most people recognizing her. Whether I preferentially direct my business to one tack-and-feed store or another does not become an issue. I can stop for brunch after riding without having to worry about changing out of my breeches or whether I have “helmet hair,” because I am never a photo opportunity for the local newspaper. Perhaps because so few people really understand what the provost’s job entails, I am not the subject of much community attention. I can live in my community without drawing a lot of scrutiny to myself or my activities. The scarcity of personal time and lack of privacy are well-known characteristics of the presidency, and many provosts cite them as reasons for not wishing to serve in that role.

This disincentive is strong, but the stronger one is my desire to remain close to the academic heart of my institution. As provost, my activities are firmly grounded in academic matters, and my work focuses strictly on serving the best interests of faculty and students. When I want to argue for or against something, or develop an advocacy position of some sort, I can do so in an academic, data-based fashion. I make my case to a boss (the president) who can be persuaded by what makes good academic sense. The president, on the other hand, must be responsible not only to the academic mission, but to governing boards and, for public universities, government agencies, which rarely consist of citizens who developed their own careers in academe. This means the case for academic initiatives or other institutional needs must be made by the president in terms of legislative priorities, public relations, the financial bottom line, and what a whole host of off-campus constituencies might or might not find palatable.

I have been fortunate to work for two presidents who had themselves been provosts, and who, by rising through the administrative ranks, had direct experience working with faculty. If other provosts increasingly develop an attitude similar to mine about the presidency, or if the position of president does not undergo some substantial transformation, provosts of the future will find themselves as the most senior administrators with academic backgrounds and credentials.

This, I fear, will mean more and more provosts will, in addition to all their other important duties, need to consistently involve themselves in “upreach”—instructing the outsider president about the quirks of academe. While this situation could be detrimental to the academic mission, the selfish upside for provosts would be that the position of provost or CAO would remain the most fulfilling of senior administrative jobs.

 

Wendy K. Wilkins is executive vice president and provost of New Mexico State University in University Park, NM.