Students are still perplexed by ‘provost’ title

The recent news of the appointment of Andrew Hamilton as Yale’s new provost has left plenty of students puzzled. But they are not scratching their heads about why Hamilton was chosen for the position; rather, they are simply confused about what a provost is.

The position of provost at Yale, and at many colleges and universities across the country, is a mysterious one not often discussed among students. Few students can describe the duties of a provost with accuracy, yet those duties happen to be some of the most important ones accorded to any administrator.

“The provost is the chief academic officer and is sometimes seen as the chief operating officer of the University,” former Provost Frank Turner, the director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, said. “It’s the person who handles all academic matters and chairs numerous other committees.”

In addition to overseeing all academic matters — all deans report to her — the provost is also in charge of the allocation of Yale’s resources and serves as the chairperson of the University Budget Committee.

Despite these vital responsibilities, a tremendous number of Yale students have no idea what the provost does and know the name of the current provost only because of Hamilton’s appointment Tuesday. Most said they were not aware that Susan Hockfield has been the provost for the past year and a half or that she is moving on to become the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I have absolutely no idea what that position entails,” Amelia Reid ’06 said. “The only thing I know is that there’s a new provost, but I don’t know anything about it. I would guess it’s something akin to what the dean does — something regarding academic leadership but not in a specific department.”

Though Reid claimed to know nothing about the position, her guess was much closer than that of some of her peers.

“I know that for political union people, ‘provost’ is the term they use for alcohol procurers,” Jason Pampena ’08 said. “I don’t know, but maybe the logical jump would be that the provost is in charge of procurement and logistics.”

And even after articles on Hamilton’s appointment were published, some undergraduates did not know that the position of provost existed at all.

“We have a provost?” Melissa Gonzalez ’08 asked. “Assuming that it is an important position, it’s weird that no one knows about it.”

But Yale students are not the only ones who cannot define the role of a provost. The obscurity surrounding the position is actually prevalent on many campuses.

James Shkolnik, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, said he has only a vague notion of what his school’s provost does.

“It seems like [the office of the provost] is responsible for all the window dressing around the school,” Shkolnik said. “Stuff like alumni relations, public relations, special events, promotions, that kind of thing. But I don’t really know.”

With so many deans and administrators reporting to the office of the provost, most provosts have little interaction with students.

“Really, we only know about the positions we have contact with,” Julia Felsenthal ’06 said. “And since the deans are the intermediaries, we have no need to know who the provost is unless we need to somehow bypass the authorities of our deans. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important to know who the provost is, but I think we are unlikely to have any personal contact with him.”

The fact that provosts have little one-on-one face-time with students played into Turner’s decision to give up his role as provost, which he had held since 1988, after four years.

Due to the provost’s hectic day-to-day schedule, Turner said he did not have as much time to see students as a dean would have.

“It’s one of the things I missed the most because I like teaching so much,” he said.

Still, some students feel it would benefit both the provost and the student body as a whole to have a better idea of what the provost’s role encompasses and what his decisions will affect.

“It’s always important to know what’s going on with the people who are in charge of making the rules and regulations that are really going to impact students,” Reid said. “It’s important to know what is going on [with the provost] in the same way that it’s important to know what’s going on with all the other people who make this place run.”

So as Hamilton prepares to take the reins as Yale’s new provost, students said they hope that he will make an effort to keep them informed, stay connected and publicize any major decisions.

“I think that it’s unfortunate that no one knows — what a provost does,” Taraneh Nazem ’07 said. “Maybe it would be beneficial to have a committee where the provost, the deans and a couple representative undergraduates from each college have an open forum so students would have more connection with the provost.”

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