Vice President vs. Provost

August 02, 2007

On many college campuses, the person who is second in command after the president has two titles: vice president for academic affairs and provost. Even on campuses where the second in command has only one job title (vice president or provost), she or he is expected to perform both sets of duties.

The problem is, the two roles entail distinctly different and, at times, even conflicting responsibilities.

The traditional role of a vice president for academic affairs is to promote and maintain a distinctive academic vision. That means leading the intellectual community on the campus, playing the role of visionary, and, when necessary, defending lofty principles.

The vice president's central responsibility is to make sure the institution clarifies and stays true to its mission. A second in command will sometimes be called on to be a prophet and profess deep truths about the institution, its core values, and its commitments. In that role, a second in command is, first and foremost, a faculty member and leader of the campus intelligentsia, and only secondarily the manager of a big bureaucracy.

By contrast, the provost's traditional role is to make sure that administrative and support operations run as they need to on a daily basis. The provost monitors those processes, resolves personnel matters, balances budgets, arbitrates demands for facilities, and oversees the marketing of business operations (such as revenue-generating performing-arts and sports events).

When a second in command is discharging those provost duties, he or she needs to be a grassroots politician, making sure necessary things happen on time. Success requires that the provost operate more as a pragmatic manager than a prophetic visionary.

The differences between the vice president's and the provost's duties are sometimes obscured by the fact that both sets of responsibilities often fall to the same person. But because those responsibilities are distinct, they need to be approached differently. What campuses need is a second in command who can accurately gauge which role is more pertinent in a given situation -- someone who can act either as a prophet or a politician depending on what the situation calls for, and then quickly adjust to meet the next crisis du jour.

If you are a second in command with both titles, you may find your job particularly difficult because of the culture of shared governance in academe. That culture limits your authority to operate independently without any significant reduction in your level of accountability.

Of course, you do have some powerful tools at your disposal. You set the agenda. You manage the bulk of the institution's budget and personnel. You normally appoint or approve the appointment of department heads. You hire deans and other top campus administrators. You get to make decisions that others must accommodate -- not the other way around.

But that authority comes with a price. It means dealing with a lot of people problems and intracampus rivalries. Every decision you make -- whether it is about general priorities or the specific allocation of resources -- is a decision some set of people on the campus will want to fire you over.

Even small oversights by invisible people on the campus can turn into systemic issues that wind up on your desk. ("Why are students' names taking so long to migrate onto class rosters?")

And the major mistakes that people make, or the transgressions they commit, can land you in court to represent the institution, which (fairly or not) is expected to exercise oversight responsibilities and (accurately or not) is perceived as having deep pockets.

In all of those various problems, large and small, the competing demands of the vice president's and the provost's duties come into play.

As provost, you are responsible for the dauntingly complicated operations of the institution, so you feel the need to dispense quickly with the barrage of problems that crop up on a daily basis. You want to negotiate compromises that are at least minimally acceptable, in order to get people back to the business of meeting deadlines.

But as vice president for academic affairs -- and chief academic visionary -- you want to put on the brakes and think about whether a particular solution is in line with the university's mission. You want to take the time to understand and respond thoughtfully to matters of deep principle.

A politician has to be willing to compromise principles to some degree in order to arrive at an agreement that will enjoy enough support (i.e., enough people thinking, "It may not be perfect, but it is what we have") to keep things functioning. A politician sees compromise as a good thing, as a way of getting over an obstacle and back on task. Pragmatism is the default decision-making approach associated with the provost part of being second in command.

In a shared-governance environment, that means abiding by the rules to decide everything that can be decided within the rules, and letting committees make most of the rest of the decisions. That approach tends to moderate conflict on a campus.

Issues involving academic integrity, academic freedom, and promotion of core educational values are cases in which the politician (provost) needs to take a back seat to the prophet (vice president for academic affairs). When those issues are at stake, the decision-making process should be guided by adherence to organizational values and mission. You need to be a visionary here, not a manager.

The professional challenge that you face, almost daily, as a second in command is to decide when to adhere to the idealism of the job without entertaining much room for compromise, and when to be a realist and allow some deviation from ideals in order to keep the process from stalling out.

We can't tell you what that point is, since it varies on any given issue. Institutional progress is impossible if the second in command turns too many issues into ideological battles. On the other hand, progress also sputters when a university's programs and operations are out of alignment with its mission and ideals.

If you mistakenly start to transform an operational matter into more of an ideological question than it needs to be, work on that matter will slow almost immediately. That makes it easy to detect the point at which you should start asking if you are being "uncompromising" without a compelling reason.

The more common mistake is to overlook genuine and significant matters of principle, dismissing issues without appreciating their underlying significance. Seemingly trivial or personal matters that make their way to the desk of the second in command sometimes fall into that category. They are the issues that "won't seem to go away" because the circumstantial masks a deeper conflict.

Too much of a pragmatic "back to work and look the other way" response can have deep symbolic significance for those involved and affect the way people on the campus think about institutional values. People can read volumes into administrative responses, and many of those volumes were never intended to be written.

To be an effective second in command means developing the instinct to know when to put on which hat.

Ray Maghroori is vice chancellor of academic affairs at the Riverside Community College District, and Charles Powers is a professor of sociology at Santa Clara University.