Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The New Provost

Since I will not long be able to disguise the genre of of this post, the parental brag, I must at the very least make a few preliminary remarks by way of extenuation.  I recognize that the most important thing I have done with my life is to have been a father.  Years of experience and observation, however, have led me to a tempered and perhaps even pessimistic view of parental agency.  It is this.  While there is nothing parents can do to guarantee that their children will turn out well, there are about a dozen things they can do to make it likely that they will turn out badly.  While it is only natural to delight in the achievements of one’s offspring, it would be folly even in imagination to take credit for them.  One can, however, be grateful for the hand of Providence.  Furthermore as a student of classical culture I am aware that not everybody wants to hear you going on about how great your kids are.  One could cite numerous instances in which parental boasting got so out of hand as to cross the line between bad manners and actual tragedy.  Think of poor Niobe transformed forever into a weeping statue!

Now, having dutifully laid out the prefatory required legal boiler-plate, I have to report that it was announced two days ago that our daughter, Dr. Katherine Elizabeth Fleming, is to be the new Provost of New York University.  This is a really big deal, and the reason I am putting it in my blog is that the message is too long to fit onto a bumper sticker on my pick-up truck.  “My Daughter is an Honor Student” just doesn’t cut it.

There is a quaint, old-fashioned character to many of our academic titles—our deans and vice-chancellors and such—that recalls the real or imagined medieval origins of the offices they denote.  A provost, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, means simply an “official set over others (in various specialized senses).”  Some version of the word appeared quite early in most of the European languages, including Old English, deriving from the Latin pre + positus, “set before”.  Like numerous other such words, provost “came into” English twice, one through the Latin and once through French, so that in certain settings it is pronounced in the French manner, without the concluding consonants, as in the military term provost marshal, or Provo, Utah—named after an early French trapper, Etienne Provost.  The top academic official of Worcester College, Oxford, is a “provost”, and in my time there the Latin pronunciation vied with the French.

What the word means in contemporary academic English is a dauntingly challenging and important job.  In 1963 Clark Kerr, the President of the University of California, gave a series of lectures at Harvard in which he introduced the term multiversity.  It was needed, he argued, because the incremental complexity of American higher education had in effect left the comparative simplicity of the university behind.  How do you?—how can you?--govern an institution that has within it, not always harmonious as they jostle for finite resources, a liberal arts college, advanced scientific laboratories, an engineering school, a law school, a medical school, a business school, a dozen other professional schools, etc., etc.

By chance that was the very year, 1963, that I took my doctoral degree; and it was about that time that most of the larger American institutions of higher education adopted the position of provost.  Certainly my own years of active academic life were ones in which the demands on college presidents expanded nearly to the breaking point.  Almost all large schools in this country have now gone through an administrative restructuring designed to liberate the President for the already crushing responsibilities of the unique leadership role.  The provostial job description varies somewhat from institution to institution, but the job’s major elements are the same. “The Provost is the University's chief academic officer,” reads the official NYU document “who is responsible for setting the University's academic strategy and priorities, working closely with the deans of the schools, and identifying and cultivating interdisciplinary areas of excellence and collaboration within and between schools.  All deans and directors of schools and institutes report to the Provost. The Provost also has direct responsibility for all academic support units. In addition, the Provost has institutional responsibility for the allocation of financial resources in accordance with academic priorities, working closely with the Office of the Executive Vice President.”

To me, that is a rather terrifying document.  New York University has an annual operating budget of several billions of dollars.  Even in the context of New York City it is a huge private employer.  It has nearly sixty thousand students, fifty thousand of them undergraduates.  The administrative apparatus required of such an operation is formidable.  Furthermore, it is an ambitious institution at a major inflection point.  A new President, Andrew Hamilton, the former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, has been in office for only a few months.  Our daughter—my little girl!—is going to be his lieutenant in guiding such a great enterprise.   The concept of parental pride, as expansive as it is, seems inadequate to the task.  You can see why I had to write about it.  Once every five years is, I hope, not excessive.