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Don’t Leave It to Dever

Carolyn Dever5.jpgProvost Carolyn Dever came over for lunch last Christmas with her husband and son. She was relaxed, gracious, and we all had an enjoyable meal together. I concluded that our new Provost had the College’s best interests at heart, and that her warmth would carry over to her relations with the Dartmouth faculty — a group that has felt slighted by the powers that be in past years.

To my regret, events over the last ten months have shown that my expectations were not justified. As we head into Monday’s General Faculty meeting, with its important votes on the creation of a School of Graduate and Advanced Studies (GRAD) at the College, Provost Dever seems to have built very little capital with her academic colleagues. Professors could well be voting about Provost Dever herself when they offer their opinion about GRAD.

As Phil Hanlon has also done, Provost Dever has communicated the message — one hopes only inadvertently — that she has little faith in the potential of the College’s present faculty. Neither Phil nor she have ever made the complete rounds of departmental meetings to introduce themselves (though they have met with a couple of departments), to give professors a sense of who they are as people, and to talk about their plans and aspirations for Dartmouth — not to mention to listen to what faculty members have to say about the state of the College. The faculty to this day cannot comprehend such aloofness. In the business world, it is hard to imagine that a newly appointed corporate CEO and COO would not visit their senior divisional managers, even if they are spread all over the world.

In the present controversy over GRAD, the new school would be the direct responsibility of Provost Dever. Yet she has not advocated for it at all — delegating that work to Dean of Graduate Studies Jon Kull’s committee, while leaving the committee’s recommendations without comment. She said not a word at the faculty meeting last Monday. A leader takes command in such a situation, particularly as Provost Dever is well positioned to compare Dartmouth with the hierarchical organization at research-intense Vanderbilt, where she was Dean of the College of Arts and Science. She has behaved more as a bureaucrat without intellectual substance: is GRAD anything more than a structural change in the administration? Does it have any intellectual content, particular purpose or individuality? Certainly the faculty wants to hear detail beyond assertions of GRAD’s PR value and its potential to end the College’s bureaucratic inertia.

Provost Dever’s handling of the cluster hiring initiative, a program central to Phil’s plan for the College, has left ruffled feathers all over campus. Professors are quite used to having their grant proposals turned down; that is part of academic life. But when the National Science Foundation or some other granting body refuses to fund a proposal, it scores the grant application itself and guides the applicant on how to craft a better proposal the next time around. Similar guidance is given to the writers of grants that have been accepted, and in this way, everyone learns from the time-consuming experience. Under Provost Dever, no direction at all was offered to faculty members; in fact, people whose applications for the creation of a cluster were refused were never formally notified of the Provost’s decision.

Such imperiousness seems to extend to Provost Dever’s conduct in committee meetings. She has earned an unenviable reputation for barging in on the work of committees and treating established chairs with what can only be called rudeness. Members of the faculty share these stories; many initially believed that they had witnessed exceptional or atypical behavior from the Provost, only to hear similar tales from their colleagues.

As a management matter, the College’s campus climate survey questionnaire came out under Provost Dever’s watch. Not only it is a model of poor polling, as we have pointed out, but no one in the College’s social sciences division was consulted in its preparation. Many faculty members in this division, and some professors in the humanities, view the survey as incoherent and biased — its author(s) would not be invited to a lunchtime departmental talk, let alone an interview for a teaching position.

Finally, the implementation of Phil’s Society of Fellows idea is generating much comment. Someone seems to have forgotten that the newly disembarked army of post-docs was going to need office space, preferably close to the members of the faculty with whom they were to work. As things stand now, the Fellows are scattered all over campus, and the faculty has been told that office space is at a premium and will be the object of competition between departments.

The only possible conclusion from the burgeoning consensus about Carolyn Dever is that she needs to re-boot her Provostship: our academic leader must get out there among the faculty and listen with respect to what Dartmouth’s teacher-scholars have to say. She might find herself surprised at the quality of the comments that she hears; she will certainly be surprised at the appreciation she elicits for her attentiveness. Then she should make her case for change and progress in intellectual terms that may be debated and improved upon. If she can achieve a consensus, she might achieve some of her goals.

Addendum: How should one evaluate the high turnover in areas under the purview of the Provost? Numerous longterm administrators have left their positions over the past year, some of whom were greatly admired: Jeff Horrell, Jeff James, Chris Wohlforth, Lindsay Whaley, Rachel Silver, Colleen Boggs, Maria Laskaris, Steve Silver, and Michael Taylor. When the quality of the better people in this group is counter-balanced with the appointment of soggy administrators like Denise Anthony and Inge-Lise Ameer to higher-ranking positions, the Provost’s judgment in hiring must be questioned.

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