Verbum Ultimum: A Provost’s Place

Dartmouth’s next chief academic officer must put undergraduates first.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 11/10/17 1:00am

Dartmouth recently announced the appointment of computer science professor David Kotz ’86 as interim provost while a search committee begins its hunt for outgoing Provost Carolyn Dever’s replacement. As one of the most powerful administrators at Dartmouth, second only to the College president, the provost oversees close to 30 offices, support centers and programs ranging from admissions and financial aid to information technology services to environmental health and safety.

In making its recommendations for our next provost, the search committee will play a critical role in shaping Dartmouth’s academics in the coming years. In its current form, the committee is comprised of 11 members, including one undergraduate student and one Tuck School of Business student. Unfortunately, these two students can only represent a small subset of the opinions of the student body.

Although there are constraints on the number of students who can feasibly be on the search committee itself, there is still value in presenting a student perspective from the outside. It is beyond the scope of this article — or our expertise — to make suggestions for every office the provost oversees. The committee, or the College as a whole, may already be considering some of our suggestions in the course of its work. However, we can only speak to what we wish to see the search committee take into consideration, especially for one aspect of the provost’s job that carries greatest weight for students: her role in the faculty of arts and sciences.

The official description of the provost’s role states that she is responsible for supporting “the programs, the teaching and the scholarship” of the faculty. The new provost should support educational opportunities for students, especially in research. Dartmouth is currently ranked second in undergraduate teaching by U.S. News and World Report; this strong teaching also attracts a strong, intellectually curious student body. While of course there are outliers, most students enjoy learning, and many willingly commit to multi-term research projects and theses on topics about which they are passionate.

Yet funding for thesis research is uneven at best, even for some of the more popular programs. This year, the Rockefeller Center Senior Honors Thesis Grants program was unable to fully support the requests for thesis funding it received. While there may have been some unexpected demand or other anomaly, it is nevertheless a timely reminder that the amount of funding budgeted for undergraduate research is often inadequate. The provost’s role as both head of academics and financial planning affords her the unique ability to oversee both sides of the equation, an opportunity to demonstrate support for students through funding. If the College is committed to academic rigor, it must back up its goals with increased funding initiatives for undergraduate research.

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship is an excellent example of institutional support for undergraduate research and scholarship. Run by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it funds students from undergraduate minority groups and similarly-minded non-minority students to pursue doctorates that will lead to careers in academia. The fellowship’s funding, in supporting students hoping to enter academia, helps create innovative thinkers who are making an impact in emerging and relevant fields at Dartmouth and beyond.

Yet to attract such innovative thinkers, the College also needs to hire professors who support and inspire such research. The provost plays a critical role in this through her appointment powers. As provost, Dever appointed leaders across departments, including the Tuck and Geisel School of Medicine deans, the vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and the dean of libraries. The future provost will have similar responsibilities.

The search committee has a clear role in supporting these goals. It can examine candidates based on their prior work, either supporting similar goals in the liberal arts in an administrative role or in their teaching work. To support the faculty of the arts and sciences as completely as possible, candidates should have a demonstrated commitment to students and faculty in their previous jobs. The committee can determine such attributes through its evaluation and interview process, and in doing so it ought to prioritize those candidates most committed to the liberal arts, to the small college ideal and to Dartmouth’s role as an undergraduate-focused institution.

Dartmouth is still a private, nonprofit institution, and these goals on first glance may seem to purely benefit students, not the College. However, hiring for a provost who is committed to student research and strong undergraduate teaching would be beneficial for all, particularly if it distinguishes Dartmouth as the undergraduate-first answer to impersonal research universities like the College’s peers within the Ivy League.

Dartmouth cannot become a large research university focused on graduate student research. It simply does not have the space or facilities to support the aggressive expansion needed to compete with the likes of Harvard University, which in 2016 had a total enrollment of 22,000 students, about 15,300 of which were graduate students. But Dartmouth does have the ability to carefully select and court professors who are admired in their fields. With a base of respected professors who feel supported by the College, Dartmouth can more easily attract talented faculty who want to work with such innovators and need fewer other incentives to bring them to such a rural community, alongside students committed to learning through personal interactions with their professors. By providing funding to its undergraduate population’s research efforts, Dartmouth can capitalize on the strength of its teaching, bolstering valuable academic contributions that will increase the school’s rankings and attract brighter students.

The search committee has the power and responsibility to hand-pick a new provost. In doing so, they should take candidates’ academic backgrounds and commitments into consideration to select a candidate who will benefit both students and the College. The search committee has a responsibility to hire a new provost who will embody what the College does best.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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