October 20, 2008

Administration Confronts Turnover of Top-Level Posts

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Before students of the Class of 2009 were even born, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin and Carolyn Ainslie were dwelling in Ithaca as Cornell employees. So it came as a surprise this summer when both the provost and the vice president for planning and budget bid adieu to Cornell after more than two decades of service.
But Martin and Ainslie were not the only top-level administrators departing from the office of the provost in the past few months. David Wippman, the University’s first vice provost for international relations, left Cornell to become the dean of University of Minnesota Law School in July. In the same month, Robert Harris ended his eight-year post as the vice provost for diversity and faculty development. He has since then resumed his faculty position at Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center. Additionally, in the past two decades Cornell has seen a striking presidential turnover rate, with three presidents serving over the past 13 years.
There are twelve top administrative positions in the office of the provost and with four departures just this year, Cornell will have to replace a third of these positions. Even so, past and current administrators stressed that the current turnover in the Cornell administration is natural.
“I do not know what we need to improve retaining top administrators. Turnover is good for the institution and, often, for the individual. I do not believe that we have had excessive turnover, with the obvious exception of the president,” stated interim provost David Harris in an e-mail.
Ainslie, now the vice president for finance at Princeton University, shared Harris’ view that turnovers can be healthy for institutions. She expressed her belief that there is a greater demand for experienced administrators in higher education. On the other hand, Martin stressed that many Cornell administrators serve an above-average time at the University.
“I do not believe that Cornell is experiencing unusually heavy turnover,” stated Martin, who is now chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in an e-mail. “If anything, we, at Cornell, have simply gotten accustomed to longevity beyond the average length of service in our positions.”
Indeed, Cornell’s provosts, on average, serve longer terms than their counterparts at other Ivy League schools. The past five provosts at Cornell served an average of 6.4 years — a figure significantly higher than the Ivy League average of 4.1 years.
It is not uncommon for provosts to advance their careers by assuming presidency at other institutions. Recently, Yale’s provost left New Haven for the top academic position at Oxford University. Cornell’s previous provost, Don Randel, became the president of the University of Chicago.
Martin followed the above trend and in her return to her alma mater.
“I don’t feel that I made a decision to leave Cornell as much as I made the choice to return to the University of Wisconsin when the opportunity to serve as chancellor arose,” stated Martin, who is also Cornell’s longest-serving provost. She worked with three different presidents during her eight years.
After her departure, a Provost Search Committee was swiftly formed to find a replacement for Cornell’s chief academic officer. The search came to a close Friday with the announcement that W. Kent Fuchs, the Joseph Silbert dean of the College of Engineering, will become Cornell’s new provost.
Over the summer, a University-wide e-mail was sent requesting nominations for the next provost. However, for the duration of the search process, many students felt left out and inadequately informed. Some students expressed that the search should have been more transparent, and that the University should have provided more information and updates.
“Besides the e-mail asking for recommendations, I haven’t heard anything about the search for the new provost. I think we should have gotten some sort of an update telling us who the potential candidates were,” said Ben Reich ’11.
“It may seem to people that there is a lack of transparency, but actually it is a major step up,” said Ryan Lavin ’09, president of the Student Assembly, who served on the Provost Search Committee. “Normally only the president would pick the provost, but I think it is the first time that a Provost Search Committee was formed to give nominations. Students were also able to give suggestions to the president, so we are fortunate.”
Prof. Martha Haynes, astronomy, head of the Provost Search Committee, explained that since the search was internal and the provost appointment would come from within the University, the committee had to work under strict secrecy.
“Our charge was to conduct all business in a highly confidential manner … I hope you can understand why I cannot be more specific,” stated Haynes in an e-mail. “The committee has worked very hard, spending hours in meetings, discussions, interviews, deliberating what is best for Cornell. It is doing its job in a very deliberate and thoughtful way. But behind closed doors. That’s how these things work, particularly when the search is internal.”
Lavin defended the confidentiality of the search for the next provost.
“In the administrative and faculty community, everyone knows to some extent the reputation of others. A lot of politics and bad spirits are avoided because of the confidentiality. And because of the nature of an internal search, we cannot risk having these negative effects getting out,” Lavin said.
The committee was responsible for compiling a report presenting an unranked list of qualified candidates. Haynes explained that the decision would ultimately be made by President Skorton due to the close relationship a president must have with the provost.
“It’s impossible for a committee to choose the final provost; President Skorton has to choose someone in whom he has complete confidence and with whom he is delighted to share the burdens, obligations and responsibilities of the University leadership,” Haynes stated.
Skorton announced his decision to appoint Fuchs as the University’s latest provost during his State of the University Address this past Friday. As provost, Fuchs will oversee all academic programs and administer all deans of the University. He will also be in charge of Cornell’s $2 billion operating budget, which he will use to recruit high ranking faculty and staff, fund new initiatives and research, increase faculty and student diversity, advance community outreach and public service and organize student services including financial aid.
One of Fuchs’s immediate responsibilities will be finding Ainslie’s replacement for vice president for planning and budget. Currently, Paul Streeter, Ainslie’s deputy, is serving as interim vice president for planning and budget. There has been no word as to who will fill the position or if Streeter could possibly fill the position permanently.
“I would anticipate that the new provost will lead the search for my replacement. Paul Streeter is a great colleague and friend and I hope he is given serious consideration, if he so chooses to pursue this position,” Ainslie stated in an e-mail.
As provost, Fuchs will have to handle an immense amount of new responsibilities and challenges. However, after serving as a dean for six years, hopes are high that Fuchs will bring the “great knowledge of Cornell, strong leadership abilities and a clear vision of the future” that Skorton spoke of in his State of the University Address.