A New Provost Amid a Complex Terrain

by Zak Meghrouni-Brown | 4/9/15 6:35pm

It is my first time in Parkhurst Hall since matriculation, but I’m on a mission of diplomacy rather than a walk of shame. The porch’s twin Doric columns tower above me as I climb towards the door, recalling a venerable — if exaggerated — academic heritage of the classical past. The hefty oaken doors glide noiselessly shut as I tread through a cool atrium to the Provost’s office. After a short wait, Provost Carolyn Dever — the chief of academia at the College — strides across an oriental rug with a smile and leads me into her office.

“Would you like a soda or some water?” she asks.

I would, actually, but I feel self-conscious letting the College’s second-in-command serve me, so I’ll settle for a parched throat. Behind Parkhurst’s ponderous stone and brick, Dever’s office feels light and peaceful — sky blue with white wood paneling, decorated with photos of loved ones and a couple of wayward owl figurines. Sitting down at a round table I ask how her spring term is going. Her reply is curt and immediate.

“Cold,” she said. “[But] it’s nice to see more people out and about.”

Prior to serving as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt University, Dever also served as an executive dean tasked with responsibilities related to research and faculty. Now that she calls Hanover home, Dever sees her role at the College as the next iteration in her infatuation with academia, which began with one class at Boston College.

“I was very fortunate to be among probably the first generation of young women students who had lots of tenured women professors,” she said.

She attributes her career path to mentoring she received early on.

“My teachers at BC were wonderful, and they took me really seriously and encouraged me to think about higher [education] as a career pathway for me, which I wouldn’t have done if not for those role models,” she said.

Since the inception of her career at BC, Dever has taught for 20 years, first at New York University before relocating to Vanderbilt — always paying forward her debt of gratitude to those who inspired her.

For a host of issues have hit the College’s academic arm over the past couple of years — from the exodus of minority and other expert faculty, to grade inflation and controversy of open course reviews. Dever sees building and maintaining faculty diversity as a major priority, and an Achilles’ heel to stirring the stagnant waters of innovation and excellence at the College.

The link between these twin aims — recruiting minority faculty and providing students with better tools to select their coursework — gives us a glimpse into the knotty challenges Dever will face throughout her tenure.

“[Diversity] is the single most important initiative in this entire office, [and] we have a long way to go,” she said.

English and African and African American studies professor Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, who identifies as African American, is leaving the College after this term for a position at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Gerzina declined to comment on the specific reasons for her departure, but she pointed to the opening of course reviews as a nail in the coffin of faculty diversity.

The reviews were opened to students as a tool for them to decide which classes to take, but they could effect unwanted consequences.

“Faculty of color and women are often, sometimes generally, evaluated lower by students than white men,” Gerzina said. “Why would faculty of color want to teach in a place where potentially biased evaluations could be used to determine whether they get promoted?”

Unfortunately, the path to reinvigorating the College is all too circular. We need to build a community of underrepresented faculty groups in the first place in order not to lose them. To Dever, it boils down to a ruthless marketing program.

“We need to re-recruit our faculty every day, every year, to make sure that this place is one where they know that they’re seen and valued,” Dever said.

Dever, however, said this could be an uphill battle. With a plethora of equally esteemed institutions competing for the finest faculty, the College’s very white, very rural setting can often isolate those who are already in the minority elsewhere, and the limited employment opportunities often dissuade potential faculty with spouses from making the move.

“We are both the poachers and the poached,” Dever said.

For her part, Gerzina believes it will take more than a well-orchestrated public relations campaign to retain minority faculty.

Dever remains optimistic about the College’s ability to attract and retain faculty with intensive programs in professional development, community building and mentoring.

Mark McPeek, a biology professor who has studied the trend of rising grade point averages of students at the College since 1973, believes that open course reviews can drive up grade point averages by providing professors with the incentive to give high grades in return for good reviews. Nonetheless the contentious reviews have aided McPeek in collecting data on the shifting landscape of grading. To McPeek, the problem is relatively simple.

“We have a grading system, and the problem is people aren’t following it any more,” he said.

McPeek believes that the institution of grading has been debased. Students who would get Cs according to the rubrics laid out by the Office of the Registrar in some cases now receive As, which obscures the power and meaning of grades.

“[We must] change the incentive structure around why we give grades and how we think about it,” McPeek said.

As Provost, Dever also has the responsibility of implementing the academic and residential portions of “Moving Dartmouth Forward” plan. She reassures me that the thought behind “increasing academic rigor” is more pragmatic than punishing. Indeed it should ideally serve as a means to curb median GPAs and refocus the College on its educational goals. Departing for the moment from the platitudes that plague administrative vernacular, she settles into a sympathetic tone.

“People have gotten really sensitive — I understand why — about the academic rigor argument because it sounds judgmental,” she said, “We need to ask why we’re here, why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

In reevaluating the content of what a comprises a valuable education, the College is doing a bit of soul searching. We’re haltingly trying to reorient ourselves in a rapidly changing world where Ivy League heritage, the towering columns and pediments, no longer equate to a first-rate education. For Dever, this is no tragedy — it’s an exciting opportunity to innovate.

“You have a different learning style from students of the generations before you,” she said. “We need to adjust our teaching practices to take advantage of the opportunity your own learning styles present us with to do our own business a little differently.”

Today’s students think and learn differently from those of 10 years ago because of how technology and media have influenced us from childhood, Dever said. Professors can no longer reach their students in the same ways because they no longer learn the same ways, she noted.

Additionally, innovations like the Common App have driven up college selectivity and prioritized admissions over the content of an education.

All of these issues seem to energize Dever in the search of solutions — she may be an academic purist, but she is undeniably progressive.

Perhaps the gravity of the College’s predicament requires it. Luckily, it seems, Dever might just be the salve to mend the College’s postmodern fractures.

English professor Donald Pease first met Dever at the School of Criticism and Theory, a social sciences and literature focused summer program that has been hosted by the College and Cornell and Northwestern Universities, in the early 1990s and was immediately struck by her deeply creative qualities.

“She’s a visionary,” Pease said. “That’s what I love about her.”

Pease is confident in the Provost’s capacity for bridging the divide between the administration and the faculty. He emphasized her devotion to the sanctity of the liberal arts.

“She has the arts and skills of an educator, who has not only internalized all of the ideals of the liberal arts but turned them into the basis for becoming an administrator,” he said. “[She has] emotional and intellectual generosity, whether the field is consonant with her own or deeply different.”

This generosity is manifest in Dever’s continued devotion to teaching English — indeed, it is quite unusual for a provost to maintain a professor role.

Dever may as well be an engineer, though, with her propensity for building bridges: between faculty and administration, the humanities and sciences and antiquated educational strictures and cutting-edge 21st-century learning. Pease believes that she will be a powerful instrument of change.

“I don’t think she’ll lose her edge,” he said. “Look in her eyes sometime.”