The secrets to success as a provost

What does this multifaceted job entail and what qualities do you need to do it well? Steve McLaughlin decodes one of higher education’s most mysterious roles

Steven W. McLaughlin's avatar
24 May 2024
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Most people outside the academic world don’t know what a provost is, that’s true. What is also true is that many who are part of a university – staff, students and even some faculty – don’t know, either. When provosts get together, we talk about how mysterious our job must seem.

In the US, institutional structures vary across universities but most provosts are the chief academic officers, and many are the second in charge (after the president). They oversee degree programmes, faculty and staff, academic departments and colleges, and some student support services. Provosts administer the budgets of these units and, at some universities, the research portfolio. 

As Georgia Tech’s provost, this means that I oversee almost 50,000 students, more than 50 degree programmes, 32 departments, six colleges, 1,800 employees and about $1 billion (£786 million) in residential instruction. Overseeing means that, as a provost, I provide the leadership, support and services that enable the personal and intellectual growth of our students, faculty and staff and the academic community. The provost is also responsible for issues associated with recruiting, hiring, retaining and evaluating the performance of faculty and academic administrators for the institute’s promotion and tenure process. All that to say, you never know what might pop up on any given day.

I’m often asked what it takes to be a successful provost, and I believe there are several defining characteristics of those who are successful in the role. 

A provost must be open to the unexpected

Before I put on the provost’s hat, I had a small idea of what it entailed, thanks to my roles as vice-provost of international initiatives and dean, but I was only seeing a tiny piece of the picture. I learned quickly that there was much more to this role and that you must embrace the unexpected. The range of things we work on, the challenges we address and the problems we solve are as varied as you can possibly imagine. Every day is different; you can’t predict what will come through the door in any given week, and that’s OK because it’s part of a provost’s job. It suits brains that love complexity.

A provost must remember the core motivation for their work

Provosts are only human. It’s important to remember why we do what we do – the things in our personal and professional lives that motivate us. Ideally, these passions and motivations align with our institution’s strategic goals. If this is the case, work can be inspired and fun.

In my case, I’m passionate about finding solutions for students who have significant financial needs and for those who might follow a different path to a college degree (transfer students, for example). Regarding financial aid, I draw from my own experience of needing to pay for college myself. So, I have an affinity for students going through what I once did. When it comes to raising money for financial aid, for example, I know universities can do much better. As a provost, I’ve publicly assured students and families that I will help them with concrete legwork.

My experience as an adoptive father of a young Latino man has taught me countless valuable lessons. What I have learned from my years as his father has shaped me into an ally and advocate for students who come from under-resourced communities. It is an honour and a joy for me to know that my work helps under-represented students find a path to an education at a place like Georgia Tech.

A provost must genuinely like people

Being a provost is 100 per cent a people job. If you like working with people and helping them solve problems, having difficult conversations, and dealing with a wide range of human-related issues, this is the right role for you. If you’re an introverted type or a person who shies away from tough conversations, it might not be.

Being a provost can feel lonely, but only if you let it

Although it’s a people job, it’s also a lonely job because there’s only one of you at the university. The ability to share struggles with a “peer provost” within your institution does not exist. There are powerful moments of isolation in decision-making. That doesn’t mean you’re alone, though. You will have colleagues and friends – especially the president, deans, executive leadership and provosts from other institutions – to talk to when you need to “get it out”. But they will support you, as you would them, by listening – not by providing advice on how to solve a particular problem or situation. You need to figure that out yourself.

‘Vuja de’: advice for future provosts

There’s this thing called “vuja de”, first introduced by comedian George Carlin. This phrase, which means the opposite of déjà vu, refers to the strange feeling you get when nothing in front of you is familiar. You will experience it when new and complex problems suddenly land in your office, sent by people elsewhere in the organisation who are not equipped or authorised to solve them. So, you must approach these problems creatively, react to the “vuja de” with curiosity, and innovatively explore the unfamiliar. Just talking with those involved will be the way to solve a lot of these issues. Hence, you must be available, flexible, open, patient and a good listener. 

So, what does a provost do? Serve. It’s complex, unpredictable and challenging, but ultimately, it is an extremely rewarding job. I feel privileged to do it every day.

Oh, and one last thing: have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Surround yourself with enjoyable and humorous people because you can’t make some of this stuff up, and sometimes you just need to laugh!

Steve McLaughlin is provost and executive vice-president for academic affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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