Expert in Diplomacy to Become Amherst College's First Provost

January 28, 2013

How many useful lessons did Peter Uvin absorb when he studied diplomacy as an undergraduate?

He may find out this summer, when he takes up his appointment as the first provost at Amherst College, whose faculty members are not all convinced that they need one. The college has, after all, done without one since it was founded in 1821.

When he was growing up in Belgium, "my first dream was to become a diplomat," Mr. Uvin said in a phone interview. "I wanted to go across the world and end wars and promote justice.

"That was before I knew that this is not necessarily what diplomats do."

He holds a bachelor's degree in diplomatic science and a master's degree in political science from Ghent University. At 22 he went to Geneva to earn a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

He came to the United States 20 years ago and worked most recently at Tufts University, for 12 years. For the past six, he was the academic dean at Tufts's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. As a professor of international humanitarian studies, he was the founding director of the Institute for Human Security. His academic specialization has been development, conflict, and human rights in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The African Studies Association honored his Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda as the most outstanding book of 1999.

All that experience made Mr. Uvin, who is 50, the preferred candidate among 11 semifinalists, according to Carolyn (Biddy) Martin, Amherst's president and the chair of its provost-search committee. "In Peter we have someone who is deeply thoughtful, believes in faculty governance, and will work well with people in closely related positions," she told The Chronicle.

Ms. Martin, who stepped down as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2011 to lead Amherst, wanted to create a provostship to improve collaboration between faculty and administrators, and to work on faculty recruitment, diversity efforts, and international programs, as well as on Amherst's role in national discussions of the future of liberal-arts education.

"What drives the need is the thinness of the administration at Amherst, historically and even currently," she says. "Conserving that low overhead, and keeping bureaucracy limited, those are good things." But administrators have been so busy with everyday operations that they find it hard to look ahead, she says.

What she does not want, and does not fear Mr. Uvin will be, is a provost unable to tailor the new position to Amherst's particular needs as agreed upon by administrators and faculty members. During deliberations over whether to have a provost, faculty leaders expressed anxieties about the insertion of a new level of administration. Mr. Uvin says that he welcomes that as a sign that Amherst professors are eager to engage in the college's administrative future, and that he agrees with critics of "the growing bureaucratization of many universities in this country and the growing cost of administrative superstructures."

Yes, he says, Amherst's faculty voted to create the new position, at the president's request, "but that doesn't necessarily mean that every faculty member is wildly enthusiastic about the idea." Appropriately so, he says, because "it has not yet become clear exactly what the position's roles, responsibilities, and prerogatives are going to be."

Among faculty concerns has been that future presidents might not maintain President Martin's clear intent that the provost would maintain the college's historically cooperative relationship between the president and faculty. Mr. Uvin says forging a definition of the position is among his first duties. He says: "I have no fixed opinion of exactly what the role or prerogatives or powers of a provost ought to be. I will have to create the sort of relations and constituency that actually justify having the position at a liberal-arts college like Amherst." While the title is becoming more common at liberal-arts colleges, it is regarded by some higher-education experts as an inflated title for what used to be called, at those smaller institutions, a dean of academic affairs.

He adds: "Many people clearly are interested in seeing how this will unfold, and rightly so. I myself am one of those."

Members of the search committee identified Mr. Uvin's wry sense of humor as one of his winning qualities. They have also described him as thoughtful, measured, rational, wise, approachable, and "incredibly smart."

A native of Flanders, where Belgians commonly speak four or five languages and need all of them to negotiate demographic, political, and professional complexities, Mr. Uvin holds that universities have a big advantage over geopolitical regions in resolving internal wrangles. After all, he says, at universities "you're surrounded by people of a high degree of intelligence."