It is the best of jobs. It is the worst of jobs. That’s how Dickens might have characterized the job of provost at a major university. But what kind of job is it exactly? I provided my answer in my book, Provost, published by Stylus Press. While there are many books about being a university president or dean, there is hardly any literature on the provost’s position. I've tried to fill that gap with this offering.
I served as provost at North Carolina State University for four and a half years, from 2005-2009. It was an unexpected job, since I came to NC State in 2001 as Dean of the College of Natural Resources, a position I had hoped to hold until my retirement. But when the current provost was promoted to chancellor, he asked me to be the interim provost for six months. I said yes, with no intention to stay. But, as the saying goes, life got in the way of my plans. A national search turned up no acceptable candidates, and the job became mine permanently--well, at least for a few years.
While some describe the provost’s position as the worst of jobs, I feel differently. To me, it became the best of jobs, an opportunity to live and work at the academic center of the university. The provost’s job, I believe, is to guard the soul of the university, whether in the form of planning a new library, awarding or denying tenure, revising the general education program, recognizing faculty and student achievements, investing in the study-abroad program—or the blur of activities and decisions that fill the provost’s schedule. The provost, as I see it, is “the university’s stay-at-home parent.”
And the provost’s fundamental task is to work with faculty in the shared governance of the university. This is always a challenging role, because the line between the realms of administration and faculty is fuzzy and wanders around depending on the times and situation. I also grew to understand that the university’s chief financial officer must be the provost’s best friend, forming a pair that together must represent both the yin and yang of running the institution (fortunately, the provost usually gets to be the “yang”).
My term as provost ended as unexpectedly as it began, when I chose to resign when my earlier hiring of the state’s first lady became a political issue. The lesson from this event is that bad things can happen to any provost at any university at any time, regardless of whether or not one did something wrong. As I describe in the book, part of the provost's job is to protect the institution, even if it means falling on your sword.
I end the book with a look back at the provost’s job from my renewed perspective as a faculty member. I've sat in many chairs at the university, and nothing is more true than the assertion that “where you stand depends on where you sit.”
But here's the most important quality if you want to hold and succeed in the best of jobs: all you need to do is love the university.
What others are saying about Provost:
"Written from the lens of a former provost, Larry Nielsen’s book... is a must read for those aspiring to the position as well as those currently in the role. This comprehensive book details the provost’s challenges and joys and is chock full of frank but encouraging nuggets of wisdom. Using a witty, conversational style, the reader is quickly convinced this is not another academic tome on leadership but an engaging adventure, one that compels you to continue the journey, curious to read what comes next." (Jeffrey L. Buller, in The Department Chair)
"As someone who works in the Provost's office at a public university, this book captures the ups and downs of academic leadership in superb form. It is insightful, engaging, and entertaining - a great addition for not only provosts, but anyone who is interested in learning more about how colleges work." (David English, on Amazon.com)
"...a sobering, yet at times also hilarious, look at faculty resistance to change from the perspective of the provost." (Rick Reis, in Tomorrow's Professor)
"This book is a great read for anyone in academia, not only individuals who are considering becoming a Provost. It captures the intricate politics of a university right to the point and is very amusing!" (ViolaMarie45, on Amazon.com)
Publication Details: Provost--Experiences, Reflections, and Advice From a Former "Number Two" on Campus, by Larry A. Nielsen. Foreward by D. H. DeHayes. Published by Stylus Press. Hardback. $35.00