June 26, 2008

Interim Provost David Harris Speaks About Replacing Martin

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As Provost Biddy Martin leaves Cornell to assume the chancellorship position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell has begun to search for her replacement. In the meantime, President David Skorton has appointed David Harris, deputy provost and vice-provost for social sciences, as interim provost until a replacement for Martin is found. The Sun spoke to Harris about his appointment, his plan not to introduce new initiatives and what it will take to fill Martin’s shoes.

The Sun: Many of Cornell’s past provosts have gone on to become presidents of major universities and take leadership roles in higher education. Now you have taken on this role. How do you feel about your appointment?

David Harris: It’s great. As I said in the statement, I feel it’s a tremendous honor and a great responsibility. It’s funny the provost’s role is one of the most important jobs in the University that most people don’t know anything about and knowing what I do know from being vice provost for social sciences and being deputy provost, I feel a tremendous responsibility to continue the wonderful things that Biddy was doing to help Cornell continue to excel.

Sun: The role of interim provost is not defined as well as the role of the permanent provost. What will your duties be?

DH: The provost is the chief academic officer and chief operating officer of the University. So a chief operating officer deals with the budget. Cornell has an annual budget that’s over 2 billion dollars and the provost is the person who has budget responsibility for the University. So, there’s obviously a lot involved in that. And, as chief academic officer, the deans of the colleges report to the provost. So, everything that happens in the academic side of the University is the provost’s responsibility. The provost approves the hiring of faculty and signs off on appointments of tenure before they go to the Board of Trustees for approval. There’s quite a large range of responsibilities.

Sun: Have you brought any initiatives of your own to the position that you would like to see implemented?

DH: No. Actually, I’m aggressively not bringing in new initiatives. I think it would be very disruptive for the University to have to one provost come in and follow one plan for four months or however long it is until we find a replacement, and then have someone else come in and move things in an entirely different direction. I feel it’s a very bad idea for the University. As a result, what I’m trying to do is to keep things moving as they are. Not have things stay still, but keep them moving in the right direction. That said, things will come up. Maybe something pops up in October that we’ll have to deal with, something that will make us do things differently. But I have no plans to change anything.

Sun: Do you know how long you’ll be the interim provost? That is to say, is there a deadline by which Cornell will have a new provost?

DH: I’ve agreed to serve until there’s a new provost, which is a little daunting, except for the fact that I believe it won’t take that long. It’s internal candidates and these are known entities. So it won’t take as long as it would with a national [search]. Plus, the person you’ll hire will be on campus so doesn’t have to deal issues of moving family to new towns. They’re already living here.

Sun: Did you, and will the new provost, have to undergo any sort of training to adequately fulfill the duties of the provost?

DH: I think the training for me has been, on some level, the last three years but especially this last year as deputy provost. I attend at least two group meetings a week with Provost Martin and end up meeting with her one-on-one every week or so. You don’t really go to a training session; it’s more on the job training. I think whoever will come in as the next provost is probably someone who is also in regular contact with the provost office. So they’ll know of the major initiatives across campus and have ideas on them.

Sun: Martin had begun implementing several initiatives she believed would improve Cornell. Many of these are as yet incomplete, though she is gone. How important is it to administration that her plans be fulfilled? Will they be fulfilled?

DH: Well, there are two things I’d like to say. First, as wonderful as Biddy is, she is not the whole provost office. Just as the president of the United States has a cabinet, there are a group of folks with the provost who are involved in generating and implementing ideas. Biddy’s leaving, but those folks are not. It’s not as if the initiatives would stop just because Biddy cared about them and is gone. Secondly, there’s almost no initiative that a provost would champion that was not supported by a majority of the University. So because of that, you can expect these initiatives to continue. These ideas tend to have broad support.

Sun: What qualities would you like to see in a new provost?

DH: One of the things that is required of a provost, something that Biddy did extremely well, is the ability to keep their disciplinary background, that important piece of who they are, from determining the issues they push or the decisions they make. Biddy is a humanist, a German scholar and a gender scholar, but you wouldn’t know it from the initiatives she’s championed, and there are a range of them. The Life Sciences Initiative, for example, has nothing to do with her intellectual background. So that’s really important, that the provost represents all the University. It’s also important that the provost be listening as much as he or she is directing, so as to understand where the campus stands on a variety of issues.

Sun: What will you do once the new provost is selected?

DH: I’ll go back to what I’m doing now. We in the provost office have appointments in a certain time period. Still, there’s no reason that the provost can’t suddenly decide to want a new organizational structure. We all know that. So, the assumption is that I’ll go back to being deputy provost and vice provost for social sciences, unless the new provost wants to do something differently. I have no interest in being the next provost; it’s not the right time for me, personally.

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