Search for new Provost critical to UW’s future (April 2009)

[This article originally appeared in the April 30th issue of the Badger Herald. Truth be told, it was my least-favorite piece of the year]

Hopefully, this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but we are nearly at the end of the semester. When we return in the fall, the most important change to campus will be the installation of a new provost. This change won’t be as visible as the giant hole that will have taken the place of Union South or other construction projects sure to spring up by fall — most students have no idea who the provost is or what they do in the first place. Undoubtedly, the provost touches the lives of students in mundane ways. For example, it’s the provost, not the chancellor, who decides if classes will be cancelled when it gets too snowy — remember that for the next Facebook group. But the next provost will also be part of the biggest academic reshaping of the university we’ve seen in a long time, and that’s going to be anything but mundane.

The state is going to cut what it contributes to the university’s budget, and although there will likely be new funding through the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, that funding will only go to specific, targeted areas. Cuts in administration alone are not going to work anymore. If anything, we have gone too far: the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, an office without which the University of Wisconsin effectively cannot receive federal grants, was so understaffed last year that UW was missing out on grants it could have easily won and was in danger of losing its existing grants. Chancellor Martin — even before she arrived — cautioned that we cannot excel equally in everything we do and that we will have to make hard choices. It is time to be upfront about it: Hard choices mean cuts in the core research and instructional efforts — something the university has not been very good at in the past. Many of these hard choices will fall to the next provost.

This isn’t to say we need an academic hitman, a tenured Luca Brasi to Don Biddy. We need our next provost to be tough but with a heart and a brain. These cuts must be targeted. The worst possible approach would be to slash programs and positions with no broader vision, and that vision should not end at the campus boundaries. Successful scholarships often depend on having a mass of similar scholars with whom to collaborate. For the sake of scholarship in the fields where we are not going to sustain that mass, we should help those affected find a new home to carry out their work and encourage some faculty to leave. That may sound heretical, but by being upfront about which programs will suffer cuts, we can better guarantee ourselves positive outcomes to negative situations for all parties involved. If we do this right, academia will be stronger and we will minimize the number of people hurt. This will take a skilled provost and administration to pull off.

Unfortunately, Chancellor Martin has decided to limit the search for the next provost to internal candidates. Her main reasoning is that as she was an external hire and having both the No. 1 and No. 2 positions of the university be from outside of the UW would not provide enough institutional memory at the top. I’m surprised that after eight months here she still thinks that is true. The “Madison process,” as she must have surely discovered, ensures that we take our time and the entire institution gets its say when making a decision. We would have been fine with a provost new to our campus.

I do not for an instant doubt that we will be able find plenty of qualified, dedicated and passionate candidates on campus willing to be provost (as one administrator said, she would “drive the Zamboni if that’s what the university asked” her to do). However, by limiting our search to those already on campus, we have denied ourselves the opportunity to bring in someone who has a record of making the hard choices we face. I worry that without that experience, the university’s efforts will not be successful.

At this point, the next provost is already on campus, waiting to be discovered. Whoever it is, he or she will need to be honest, open, compassionate and bold enough to act and to take ownership of the upcoming challenges and their consequences.

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