What's in a name: Provost or Dean?

By Karen Gross
President, Southern Vermont College

At Southern Vermont College, we have recently begun a search for a Provost, a new position that substitutes for and expands the role of Academic Dean. Understandably, people on and off campus are asking with some regularity whether swapping the title Provost for Dean is just a change in nomenclature or whether, with the change in title, we are signaling something new and different in terms of academic leadership at the College. The answer is clear and unequivocal: the change in title presages a new academic vitality at Southern Vermont College.

Academic titles – and the roles of the people holding them – are somewhat difficult to fathom not only because they are rooted in arcane medieval definitions but also because across institutions, people holding identical titles may have different responsibilities, and people with differing titles may perform the same tasks. Some of this is a vestige of institutional history. Some of it is politics. In the end, the confusion adds to the mystery and mystique of academia.

As a relatively new college president, I’ve come to view the role of our institution’s academic leader as one with increasingly significant responsibilities. Some of my observations have to do with the changing nature of institutions of higher education in the 21st century. But some of my perceptions are specific to Southern Vermont College and the directions we are taking as we build the academic richness of our institution.

Traditionally, academic deans, as the title suggests, oversee the academic life of an institution, focusing attention on faculty recruitment, development and retention and student learning across the disciplines. Specifically, academic deans work on the creation and implementation of new academic programs, as well as the oversight and evaluation of existing programs. They also address improvements in pedagogy – for example, through the use of technology – and the allocation of resources to advance the campus intellectual life.

Academic deans must also work, together with their Development Offices, to secure grants to sustain and grow academic potential, and at small rural institutions, such as ours, they should regularly engage with their collegiate neighbors to foster joint programs, shared learning communities and expanded faculty and student development. These are not small tasks.

Formidable and challenging as these tasks are – and they are important – there is yet a broader – and in my view, more crucial role – for the leader of an institution’s academic life. Academic life is an institution’s primary asset – and that asset must be nurtured and fostered each and every day. The chief academic officer must be an institution’s compelling and inspirational voice about the power and capacity of education. That voice must be regularly and consistently heard.

This means that the holder of that position must foster an environment on campus in which learning can take place and must be at the forefront of engaging faculty, students, staff, alums and the community in the enterprise of education – through both formal and informal channels. The academic leader must inspire, constantly encouraging research, scholarship and learning. And this person must be the voice that safeguards and improves diversity, humanity and accessibility to educational opportunities.

But, even that is not enough. The academic leader, along with the President, must offer a vision for the education of the leaders of tomorrow and together, they must be able to articulate, share and generate excitement around that vision. At Southern Vermont College, for instance, that vision is beginning to take shape – it is a vision about learning through active engagement, with learning that is personalized and supportive and challenging. It is learning that is grounded in the real world but sensitive to the theoretical underpinnings of each discipline and the interdisciplinary nature of all disciplines. It is learning that happens in many places and spaces.

This vision will be realized, in part, by three new programs in the academic pipeline: a business initiative in which students design and run enterprises while on campus; and a healthcare initiative that recognizes the need for clinical leadership in healthcare delivery; and a cost-effective way to internationalize course offerings and enhance the global experiences of our students. This is just the start.

Underlying this vision of the liberal arts college for the 21st century is a commitment to developing innovative techniques to motivate students, to encourage students to take intellectual risks and not pay a huge price for seeking intellectual development. Our mission – the mission, indeed, of liberal arts education – is to seek ways to engage students in a quest for lifetime learning, to give them the toolbox of skills they need for the episodic careers they will have. In short, we are looking to create a model for engaged learning that will help students achieve academically and personally. We are working to provide an education that insures that the next generation will be in good hands.

As I reflect on these challenges and the teamwork we need to move forward, I look forward to welcoming a Provost to SVC. That provost will provide a beacon – the presence we can all look to for intellectual energy, intellectual enthusiasm and intellectual engagement.

The person who can do all that deserves the title Provost.