The Provost’s Window: Views on Academic Leadership

Kristine Barnett, Ed.D is a career-long educator and academic administrator who often has a unique perspective on all aspects of academic leadership. Dr. Barnett has cobbled together a career at a variety of institutions that have afforded her several different scenic vistas. For the most part, her leadership has been focused on small, private, liberal arts women’s (or former women’s) colleges. Barnett is new to her position as a Provost/VP of Academic Affairs at an independent liberal arts college in the southeast, affording her a new window and a new view. In her spare time, Barnett works with doctoral students in the Bay Path University EdD in Educational Leadership program.

Hi, I’m New Here.

My first role in higher education (aside from being an adjunct instructor) was as a professional writing tutor in an MBA program. This part-time opportunity came with an office big enough for a solitary desk and single, well-used desk chair. Visitors to my office closet could not sit. There was no window in the office or in the door, so it was in effect, a cocoon from which I was quickly ready to emerge. For my second role, my big break into full-time higher ed work, I moved up in style to an office in a former dorm room, swaddled in cinderblock, with a window that  revealed chicken wire and HVAC. My third big break placed me in a newer space, with a gracious view of parking lots and stately buildings. As my leadership roles grew this institution, my office changed too, until at last as Vice Provost, I looked out from the second floor to the immaculate circular driveway at the front of campus. At that institution, I had a view of its elegant façade as well as what lay behind that façade. Now, in my first Vice President/Provost’s role, I am back on the ground floor and looking at stately, ivy-covered oak. Over more than 25 years, these literal views from various windows at all kinds of institutions — large, small, career-focused, liberal-arts based, single gender, co-ed, and in various stages of success and chaos, growth and stagnation – have intertwined with the other views I have taken in. These views have included insights into academic life, teaching and learning, faculty affairs, academic operations, strategic planning, personnel and student issues, and all sorts of remarkable ideas, issues, topics, initiatives, problems, plans, milestones, and successes. I have looked out of all of these windows, mused, stewed, and pontificated on how to build and grow programs, how to ensure quality academics, how to save, spend, and ask for money, how to solve problems, how to best educate eager learners, how to build community and better work with people, and how to best position organizations. These views and insights are the basis for this blog.

How Do I Register For Provosting 101?

Soon after I received the offer to be the next Provost/VP for Academic Affairs at my current institution, a position for which I felt genuinely excited and also ready and well-prepared, my confidence flagged for a second and I asked the most valuable source I know – Google– for some sage advice: How do I even do this job?? Google alerted me to a single, seemingly ancient text, and coughed up little else. I have stumbled into this role and stayed upright thanks to guidance from new and former colleagues, mentors, and snippets of research. I am fortunate that my new institutional home is on stable footing after a period of instability and it seems that around each corner, a pocket of possibility is ready to be tapped by the amazing faculty and staff. My desire for the handbook on “How to Be A Provost in the Turbulent World of Higher Education,” and my ultimate let down on not finding that resource or easy button, led to this blog. Here, you will find one Provost’s description of the world outside her window and beyond into the world of post-secondary education. Each blog will conclude with an action step for higher ed leaders, whether they be new or seasoned.

The Transition To The New View

Having never been a Provost before, I was not sure what to expect in the transition. Thankfully, my new institution had done this before and took the lead in communicating for the few months before I started. Some of the aspects of transition that seemed to have helped include the following:

  • Visit campus several times. My institution built in a couple of full-day visits that allowed me to meet with the President, staff, and some faculty in advance of my start date. I met with nearly all of my direct reports and attended a Cabinet meeting. This allowed for in-person overlap with the outgoing Provost, which was vital in terms of experiencing the current approaches and understanding priorities and personalities. There was also a benefit in ensuring that the community understood that the outgoing and the incoming provost were amiably working together for a smooth transition.
  • Study. I scoured the institution’s website, read every catalog and document I could, and annotated everything from the faculty handbook to assessment reports and institutional data, to the employee handbook. I watched several years’ worth of college-related videos on YouTube, better understanding its traditions, people, milestones, and history. While I did not retain information as much as I would have liked, because the information was out of context, I had a vague familiarity with important details when the inevitable parade of meetings and reasonable questions came on full blast by my second week.
  • Ask For What You Cannot Find. Not all people are good at anticipating other’s needs. Academic leadership requires us to be working backwards from a desired outcome, and I have learned that a lot of folks have many strengths that might not include the ability to see over the horizon. I was provided with ample documents, but sometimes it was assumed that I would only need current reports. I often asked for documents from years ago and I routinely asked staff and faculty to walk me through the full history and processes involved in a situation. These requests for additional depth and breadth were sometimes met with surprise, but it is hard to develop a sense of the big picture if you do not have all the pieces. Moreover, in some cases my questions have revealed that some documents are not readily accessible, which can lead to time spent looking for important support.  
  • Walk Around. For the first several weeks, I walked around campus every day, exploring buildings and meeting (and startling) people. I encountered hidden spaces I had not been introduced to in my campus tour and was even more impressed by the space and the possibility. Mostly, it was a chance to find people where they were comfortable, on their turf, doing the important work that had gotten the institution in the good place it is. After a few months, my schedule has heated up to the point where I cannot do this as much as I should and would like to, but I make an effort every week to stop by to visit a different building.

Action Step: Transitioning to a new role is a significant challenge and a major disruptive force. Transition is also an opportunity to ensure that areas of oversight and critical infrastructure are accurate, complete, and easy to find. Are your areas of oversight well documented and ready for succession? If you left your role today, would a person new to your institution be able to come in and get to work? Have you documented what your role entails? Are pertinent roles and responsibilities, policies, and processes articulated and readily accessible? Many of us assume we will be in our roles forever and because we are all-knowing, we do not consider sustainability of the functions. We assume that we can work on projects like this in the summer, but often do not get to them. If these questions have led you to understand that there might be some holes in your internal documentation, make a list of areas that need shoring up and commit to documenting an essential element each week. In my new position, I am documenting the monthly obligations that pop up so that I can proactively address them next year.

Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts that delve deeper into being the newbie and trying lead an organization in the midst of disruptive change in higher education.

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