Finalists for provost at the University of Montana should be visiting the campus in March 2018 before spring break.
Monday, consultants with AGB Search talked with students, staff and faculty about the qualities needed in the provost, UM’s chief academic officer and second-in-command leader.
Sally Mason, with AGB Search, said the timeline was aggressive for two reasons: “One, Seth needs it. Two, you’ve done this before.”
Seth Bodnar is UM’s incoming president, set to take the helm in January 2018 from interim leader Sheila Stearns. Former UM provost Perry Brown retired in June 2016, and UM launched the search for a provost, but then suspended it when the Montana Commissioner of Higher Education asked the UM president to step down last December.
This fall, after vetting by a search committee, Commissioner Clayton Christian tapped General Electric executive Bodnar to serve as UM’s next president. The Montana Board of Regents unanimously approved the hire of the Rhodes Scholar with two master’s degrees from the University of Oxford.
Bodnar, whose career experience is at GE and in the U.S. military, has said he’s looking for an experienced academician as provost and partner. At a meeting with faculty Monday, Mason said Bodnar aims to move quickly in selecting the provost, but AGB Search also persuaded him the process takes time.
“I’ve already told him that you don’t want to rush this and not make a good decision,” Mason said.
She and consultant Rod McDavis said the search committee already elevated a couple of formerly preferred qualifications to required ones. A commitment to diversity is now required, as is experience at a doctoral granting institution.
McDavis said some requirements serve two purposes, ensuring faculty get the right professional, but also making UM attractive to candidates. And Mason said the experience at a doctoral institution is essential.
“Think about who your president is. He doesn’t have that experience. He’s got to have a partner, a full partner who truly understands who you are and what you do. We get that,” Mason said.
Flagship institutions are unique, and a provost needs to be someone who knows how to elevate all academic units to raise an institution’s profile, McDavis said: “If you get that kind of provost, the University of Montana is on its way.”
At the meeting, faculty generally expressed interest in a unifying leader who will empower faculty to teach and mentor, a scholar who will be an advocate for research and scholarship, and a communicator who will be transparent in campus dealings and astute in understanding the budget.
- John Quindry, department chair and associate professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance, said that to help bring UM out of its economic crisis, the provost should be well versed in research and creative scholarship, and the person needs to be able to take research from a $100 million enterprise to $150 million, and then $200 million. He said the provost also needs to understand the campus’ strength in humanities.
- A faculty member in the College of Business said the provost needs to understand the budget and the fact that some 80 percent of costs are fixed. So a decrease in enrollment hits the bottom line. “It would just break my heart if we had a provost come in who acted surprised again every year.”
- Scott Mills, associate vice president of research for global change and sustainability, said while UM isn’t as diverse as some campuses, the provost needs to know Montana is interested in global engagement.
- Another participant voiced interest in transparency, citing lack of it with the program prioritization process now underway: “It would be great if our next provost was able to demonstrate the ability to be transparent in their communications with all parties at an institution.” In response, McDavis said he and his colleague will talk with candidates’ peers in order to determine if they’ve actually been transparent.
- Beverly Chin, professor and English chair, said the provost should make logical decisions and remove barriers from faculty, who are doing terrific work in teaching, mentoring and scholarship. “I’d like us to feel empowered and supported as individual as well as collective faculty.”
- One participant mentioned a necessary commitment to shared governance, or commitment to giving faculty and others a say in decisions. One recent president finalist didn’t have a good relationship with faculty, and the participant said he’d rather have ideal finalists visit campus. In response, McDavis encouraged the faculty to get as much information from faculty representatives on the search committee as possible: “They’re your eyes and ears.” However, he also agreed the process is confidential up to a point.
- Professor Dan Spencer in environmental studies said he wants a provost who is an advocate for faculty. Currently, he said some emails from the provost’s office make him feel like faculty will be harmed. Spencer also said he wants someone who will design education and then use technology to support it, not limit education based on technology.
- Charles Janson, associate dean and professor in the Division of Biological Sciences, said the provost must see the complementary value of contingent faculty members, those who aren’t tenured or on tenure tracks. Some faculty are focused on research, but others such as nontenured lecturers have teaching expertise. “They have a critical role to play in the university.”
Quindry wanted to know if the relatively lower salaries in Montana and the “Rocky Mountain Discount” would be a detractor for strong candidates. Bodnar has been hired at a salary of $313,845. Quindry said that while some people view it as “outrageous,” it’s low for higher education and he worried it might turn off applicants.
A national Chronicle of Higher Education survey put the pay at Montana’s flagships at 73 percent of the median this summer, with the average at $501,398.
McDavis and Mason don’t believe the pay will be a deterrent, though, and they also said the position has strong appeal. The country has only an estimated 50 flagship universities, and those jobs don’t open frequently, McDavis said. In this case, the job allows a dedicated academic to work at a flagship, live in a place with a high quality of life, and work with a new president who has a “bold vision.”
“This represents an opportunity to take an institution from where it’s at to a higher level,” McDavis said.
Said Mason: “Academics are notorious for not doing things for money. It seems to be part of our DNA.”
The consultants anticipate posting the job description on or around Dec. 1 and encouraging a Jan. 31 application deadline for “serious consideration.” The new provost should start anywhere from June 1 to July 1 next year if the recruitment goes as planned. Currently, Beverly Edmond is serving as UM’s interim provost.