The Education of a Provost By Janel Curry
I had just finished speaking with a group of students recently returned from a semester abroad. Their friends and families would ask them about what they had seen and done in Russia or Australia, but they had difficulty expressing the full meaning of their experience. It had been, after all, about hearing, seeing, and smelling a new culture; about understanding and knowing a new place; about feeling comfortable and confident with their ability to navigate what it meant to be there. As I listened to their stories, I was struck by how such multisensory experiences shape us—not just as undergraduates in college but continually, throughout our careers. Maybe the connections were heightened for me because I had just completed my first month as provost of a liberal-arts college outside Boston. An essential reason I took the job was that it demanded the use of everything I had learned and experienced—a tapestry of skills, knowledge, and wisdom. And that got me reflecting on the specific experiences that had shaped me for this new role. In my 30 years in higher education, I have been through two core-curriculum revisions, led overseas classes, written grants, worked on outcomes-based teaching and learning assessment, taught courses with lab sections and without, taught classes with service learning and without, and done research with undergraduates and without. I have experienced dysfunctional committees and ones that did a profoundly good job of assessing a problem. But just as a list of places visited by those students did not sum up their experiences abroad, my own list of committees, courses, and tasks does not capture the experience or understanding needed to be a provost. I come from an egalitarian, social-justice-oriented, small-town family in the Midwest. So I had to become comfortable with money—or, to put it better, with progress via philanthropy. When I was a high-school junior, I received a call from a local lawyer who wanted to meet with me. I remember my confusion: Why would any lawyer want to talk to a 16-year-old? At that meeting I was told that a
local philanthropist had awarded me the equivalent of a full scholarship to college. What an incredible gift. As a result, I was able to take advantage of opportunities I’d never thought possible, like study abroad, which changed the course of my life. When I became a college administrator and worked on a scholarship agreement with a donor, I immediately wrote a note of thanks to the philanthropist’s foundation that had once supported me. I became who I am because of the generosity of philanthropic giving. I grew up in an era that encouraged the questioning of authority. Consequently I had to develop a more nuanced understanding of “position” through holding various positions. At my previous institution, for instance, I came to the campus with a one-year appointment in an endowed chair. Someone who became a close friend occupied that same chaired position the following year. We often laughed at our shared experience of being taken much more seriously during the year we held the chair. Likewise, when I became a dean, all of a sudden it was not my voice that was heard but the dean’s voice. Of course, that meant I lost authority when I lost the title. People in the finance office quit answering my e-mails soon after it was announced that I was leaving my deanship. But I didn’t take it personally. Provosts must take responsibility for making hard decisions and communicating them to others. I began to learn how to do that early in my academic career. I was a junior faculty member serving on an undergraduate honors committee that had found several theses to be wanting, but nobody wanted to communicate the bad news to the faculty supervisors. I took on the task. Many years later, as chair of the board of a nonprofit, I had to eliminate three positions. As I was talking with the three people in those positions, I remember saying to myself, “Well, this is good practice for communicating tough reality.” Such experiences helped me realize that procrastination in such situations does not serve either the institution or the individuals well.
I know that as provost I will make some decisions that I will regret—in the same way that I still regret not having taken calculus in college, a decision that limited my options later on. But was not taking calculus a mistake? No. Just as there is no truly free market, there exists no true, fully informed decision. Life is made up of choices that have to be made with less information than you desire, and which must be made in the midst of a series of prior decisions that did not involve you. Somewhere along the way, I have had to learn to live with the fact that I can make the best decision only within the context of the issue and the time. Not making a decision, and continuing to mull over options, is more destructive than making the decision and moving on. How you deal with risk and uncertainty is the real issue. (But I still wish I had taken calculus.) While I don’t think it a necessity, I have to admit that parenting, especially as the single parent of teenagers, probably did more to prepare me for the role of provost than anything else. Parenting, after all, teaches us that we have no control over the personalities of the people we live and interact with, that we have to work with what we are given. In the face of parental crises, I had to learn to take one day at a time, without letting my anxiety take over. Several phrases continue to be my mantras: “Don’t let your anxiety rise to the level of their anxiety,” and “Just because it is their crisis does not mean that it is your crisis.” Keeping calm and centered in the face of chaos has helped me deal with problems on the job like budget cuts and retention challenges. And I’ve become comfortable leaving some things undone, in spite of the angst that produces in others. Limits are part of life. Then there are the administrative lessons we learn from publishing. Peer review is always good for developing thick skin and a habit of persistence. In fact, at times when I felt I was getting soft, I’d submit a paper to a peer-reviewed journal. Nothing does more for character development than the experience of thinking you have completed a task when you send off the manuscript, only to get reviewers’ comments back months later, requiring, if you are lucky, major revisions and resubmission. Publishing in peer-reviewed journals teaches persistence and resilience. It has developed my ability to take criticism without letting it personally wound me (much), and to come back with a better, clearer idea.
Throughout my academic life, lessons about fit have come in handy. Thinking about whether you fit a particular institution can be difficult because it involves setting aside your ego and thinking about what you bring to the table and what other people need. When I was a dean at another institution, the “aha” moment came when I was attending a “Women and Power” seminar at the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University. We went through an exercise of assessing our leadership style and I quickly realized that mine did not match that of the majority of people with whom I worked. The team had changed, and it was no longer a good fit for me, so back on the job market I went. As a retired college president once told me: Keep your bags packed. That was not a comment about a failure to commit as much as an awareness that there will come a time at any institution when your job as a leader is done, and someone with a different set of strengths is needed. It is about fit and timing, not about you. I have had to accept the fact that at some point in the future, wherever I am, my work will be done. One of the best pieces of advice that I received on my professional journey to becoming a provost was to always tell the truth. That is different from not telling a lie. Telling the truth requires you to develop an authentic voice, one that speaks from your heart—which, of course, is very different from academic writing. I once accepted an invitation to lecture on climate change to the most difficult audience I could imagine. My goal was to speak authentically, and also to engage and “enjoy” those who disagreed with me. Telling the truth, with the goal of effectively engaging an audience in interesting conversations, leads to stronger relationships, built on transparency rather than agreement on every point. As administrators, we cannot control the behavior of others. We can only define the boundaries, put incentives in place, and hold people accountable. We can’t say everything we want to say at the time we want to say it; we have to pick our battles and depend on multiple voices to get a message across. We have to keep our eyes on the future so as to not let the anxiety of the present rule our responses. And we have to like people even if their behavior sometimes drives us crazy. Janel Curry is provost at Gordon College, in Massachusetts.
By Janel Curry