When you put it in the plainest terms, it sounds a bit like the plot arc of a farce. Belgian academic becomes “provost” at elite American liberal arts college amidst ongoing policy upheaval; students already distrustful of and confused by college administration become even more so; hijinks and hilarity ensue. Perhaps it didn’t help that, going into my interview with Peter Uvin, Amherst’s newly appointed, first-ever provost, the top of my notes read, “What is provost?”
In my defense, though, the question seems to be emblematic of larger problems with our relationship to our school’s administration. It’s easy enough to decry administrators and administrative actions: Fads come and go, but harboring a vague antipathy towards anything administrative is always in season. Often times, the resentment is justified. I mean, I guess I’m glad I don’t have to live near the science center construction this year, but some head-scratching is probably in order. And I know they can’t control what donations are earmarked for, but it’s not like I’ll be getting near that field house any time soon.
But what’s harder, and far more important, is to say which policies instituted by which administrators we object to. It’s no doubt more satisfying to construe the administration as a bureaucratic behemoth, but that neglects the basic recognition that the administration is composed of individual people with particular policy ideas.
Uvin’s duties, I found out, are very broadly defined. Generally, he’ll be dealing with college culture. Given how hotly we debate our cultural attitudes, I thought I might ask before I object.
DA: I’m sure people have been asking, so I’ll just cut to the chase: Could you tell me what a provost is?
PU: They’re usually at universities. The provost is normally the vice president for academic affairs. Every single American university has a provost. But colleges are different. Some colleges do not have provosts, including this one for the first 193 years of its existence. Here, Greg Call actually has thejob I just described. So I am not a provost inthe traditional university sense. What I have taken on are a number of functions on the non-academic side that either were not done at all or were done not sufficiently, or not with enough sustained attention. So, concretely, I have a number of people who now report to me who used to report to someone else, including institutional research, the CCE, the study abroad office, and others. In general, what’s common among all of them is that they’re across student, academic, and administrative sides. The provost is sort of the person who, in theory, could bring all of the pieces of the college together. That’s indeed what I’m trying to do. Strategic planning is my second function. It’s eminently an example of that. You can’t do strategic planning for students only, or for faculty only, or for staff only, because it’s by definition involving all these communities. The third one is diversity. The fourth one has to do with the whole domain of internationalization. What I like about all of these functions is that they’re all levers of change for the future.
DA: Why do we need a provost now if we haven’t had one before? Is the creation of the position a reaction to anything in particular?
PU: Not a particular event. I think that Biddy Martin, when she came here, based on her experience foremost, I think, at Cornell, but also her years at Wisconsin, considered the college under-administered. From her perspective, too many things had fallen between the cracks, when people worked in too much of an ad hoc way, where people worked together full of good intentions, and nicely and smartly, but not enough in a sustained manner, or based on good systems, or on the cutting edge of knowledge of how things are done. I think she wanted to create a team of people who really are in charge of making sure the management is the very best it can be. I think that’s where my position comes in.
DA: The provost search started before last year’s sexual assault revelations, but where do you think the position fits into the administration’s reaction?
PU: You could argue that some of the events that have put the college in a negative light—well, they’re foremost more unfortunate for the victim—are actually proof of Biddy Martin’s assessment. Sadly enough, they showed how prescient she was. Crises can hit you anywhere. You can’t predict those things, or the vagaries of how they disappear or stick around and become gigantic public events. So I don’t think she either predicted this or was necessarily responding to it, but she did have the sense that the college wasn’t well-managed enough.
DA: At the risk of oversimplifying, it seems like you were brought in to fix things. At the end of this year, what do you want to have fixed?
PU: If in a year or two, you can’t say, “Thanks to Peter Uvin being here, we now do X better,” they should kick me out. Why pay me if I don’t make a difference? If I’m just there to feed the bureaucratic machine, to add an extra layer of paperwork, signatures, and meetings, then why bother? So your question is right. How would we know that Peter Uvin, or evenjust having a provost, made a difference? Well, I think that change goes slowly at colleges. Nonetheless, I would like for people to be able to say, since Peter Uvin came: First, in the field of diversity, we have made a real difference. Our numerical and representational diversity is phenomenal. But clearly, in terms of everything that comes after that, we have done almost nothing. It’s close to…well, let’s
just call it “very surprising.”
DA: It’s embarrassing.
PU: That’s another word I could’ve used. We could use other adjectives for this. I hope that everyone will be able to say, even in a year, certainly in two or three years, when this guy came on board, things started changing. That we could say we’re living up to the promise that we project to the rest of the world. If we can’t say that, I’d be really disappointed. I’d actually resign. Number two is this gigantic strategic plan that I’m in charge of. If we say two years from now, this whole strategic planning process has produced nothing but a mass of paperwork and meetings, but nothing has changed, then again I have failed. More broadly, I’d like to be known to bring to this place a culture of being self-critical. I very much like this idea of being a learning organization—an organization that constantly questions itself. That constantly seeks information about how it’s doing, regardless of whether that information contradicts what it is thinking about itself, or whether that the information doesn’t look as beautiful as it’d like to think. I believe in transparency and broad, deliberate engagement by all. I want people to say maybe three years from now, “Since this Uvin guy came on board, we’re more like that.” Call me then.
DA: Let’s circle back to the diversity issue. I think it’s one thing to say that we have the representational diversity and need to take the next step, but what does making people take that step actually look like?
PU: I don’t know the answer. It seems to me that you possess a bunch of variables. Some of them lie with the overall climate. I think, as administrators, while we can’t force or control anyone, we can nonetheless create an environment by which we valorize the values of respect, tolerance, dignity, and so on. I also think it does matter that for all individuals, you create an environment where from day one, they feel totally at home. That notion of a safe space—people are afraid that it will lead to ghettoization, but I have not ever seen that happen. I think that when people feel safe, they reach out. It’s when they feel unsafe that they reach back in and try to protect themselves. So being able to create enough safe spaces early on is very important. Afterwards, you have to create incentives or structures that stimulate interaction and mutual learning. I think we possess enough tools to create a multitude of ways—there is no fixed way, no “administration’s way”—to facilitate these sorts of interactions.
DA: What’s an example of such an incentive?
PU: We already use some of them. Allocation of freshman residences and seminars, and for that matter, the way we make up the student body. You can make more of these choices or fewer. You could create further opportunities in terms of leadership training or dialogues, either in a classroom context or extracurricularly. You actually have a lot of folks on campus doing things together on certain issues. Obviously athletes do things together because they’re on teams together. Writers and artists do things together because they’re on their own kinds of teams together. Other students engage around issues of sexual respect. You could try to build on these communities of interest, which are often quite diverse themselves, in order to add new layers of dialogue and mutual learning. There are so many ways you can capture communities that already exist and build on them, or create new ones.
DA: It always seems to me that it’s hard to tell people to do something totally foreign to them, but is your thought that if you can build within the existing structure, you stand a better chance of improvement?
PU: We want to be invisible. Forcing doesn’t work. Most of us, when we’re forced, we end up doing the opposite. Frankly, I distrust moralizing. I think we should have moral codes without moralizing. So my gut feeling is that you can work out from the communities that exist. They act as…as oil spills! They spread. They touch others. Over a number of years, you could see change in an entire climate that started in certain spots. I think that’s more likely to work than declaring from above. That said, some things from above can make a difference. What you say, what you represent, whether you yourself live up to the standards you set. We both agree that we’re not doing a great job moving beyond representational diversity. But when I meet with people, I always find that they are full of ideas about these things, but that their ideas die down because they don’t know how to pursue them. I think that’s where I come in as a provost. Now people can keep doing the creative, intelligent thinking, knowing that someone will actually follow up with them on it—they know that there’s a process to think about these things officially. My main job is to unleash others’ creativity.
DA: I can’t help noticing that you tend to begin your speeches and interviews with a declaration that you hate power. Frankly, I don’t even know what that means. Do you hate having power? Do you hate people who have power?
PU: It’s a very personal thing. I can’t even say that it’s necessarily entirely rational. In my own life, I have systematically sought in any social relationship I’ve had—with my wife, kids, students, colleagues, anyone I was surrounded by—to actually never use a register of power. To use any argument that translates to, “I’m the boss.” I believe that almost everything in life—at least for Peter Uvin—is better done by dialectics and discussion with people, by appealing to their own sense of duty and ethics, and by learning from them or unleashing what’s in them. I have actually so far never found that it doesn’t work. What many people resent about university administration is the fact that you have no power. And honestly, you pretty much don’t. In most organizations, if you’re vice-president, which is what I’d be called at a university, you have a lot of power. But I can’t do that—not for students, certainly not for tenured faculty, and not for staff, because they’re not even under me. So I pretty much have no power. Rather than seeing that as a liability of the job, I see it as an advantage. It matches who I am.
DA: But you’re sort of second-in-command, no?
PU: Well, I’m somewhere high up in the structure, though it’s not like we assign numbers to each other. The thing is, I have almost no power, but I can help to get a lot done. I can help shape what this college will look like in the future. But I can’t do it through my direct declarations. I can only do it if I can create processes in which other people themselves want to make it happen.