Fall 2012

What does a provost do?

Donald Nieman explains

Feature Image
Jonathan Cohen
When asked to estimate the ratio of time spent in meetings to time doing other work, Provost Nieman responded: "I spend at least 90 percent of my days in the office in meetings and on the phone, leaving lots of e-mail to answer, reports to read, research to do, and memos to write in the evenings — after Leigh Ann and I get Brady to bed."

When Donald Nieman, dean of Harpur College of Arts and Sciences, became the new provost of Binghamton University on July 1, there were a few whispers: “What, exactly, is a provost?”

Among the administration, there were the obligatory provost jokes. What? You didn’t know that the word “provost” used to mean prison warden?

So we asked Nieman, “What does a provost do?”

“The provost is the chief academic officer of the University, and academics are our core mission.”

Nieman is one of five vice presidents; the others are in charge of student affairs, research, administration and external affairs. The eight deans report to the provost.

“The provost leads the Division of Academic Affairs, which encompasses faculty and many of our staff; the recruitment, admission and success of our students; and our research and teaching facilities. As provost, I work closely with the other vice presidents to assure that we serve students effectively and build on Binghamton’s reputation for academic excellence.”

“A provost must understand how all the schools relate to one another, where investment needs to be made and how growth in one area affects another area.”

“The mission of the Decker School of Nursing or the Watson School of Engineering is different from the mission of Harpur College, but all three schools have to talk to one another because nursing and engineering students must take courses in science and math as well as in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

“We’re investing $2.6 million in hiring new faculty in the coming year. Working with the deans, I have to decide where those faculty will be hired.”

“The provost has to create a culture in which the deans work well together.”

“That means learning as much as possible about the needs and cultures of the different schools and creating an environment where the deans collaborate. Our deans are not territorial. In some universities, if you don’t look out for your own interest, you’re a fool, but that isn’t what happens at Binghamton.”

“I work with the vice provost of enrollment management to recruit the right number of students to meet our goals and make sure that the students we admit will succeed.”

“Admissions is the lifeblood of the institution. It’s a complex and competitive business and must be in sync with our academic programs and investments. We must make sure that we have sufficient faculty, staff and facilities in those areas where student demand is high while at the same time ensuring that we have the broad academic offerings that our students need to flourish.”

“One of my priorities is to ensure that this remains a university with strength in the humanities, arts and social sciences as well as science, technology and the professions.”

“We’ve identified smart energy and healthcare as areas where we have strength and student demand. We also know that these are important issues for society, and we have an obligation to address them. But we also have tremendous strength in the social sciences and the humanities — disciplines that can help us understand and solve some of the critical problems we face.

“I am creating a faculty committee that will identify interdisciplinary areas in the social sciences and humanities where we can develop programs and address pressing social and intellectual problems. These will complement our smart-energy and healthcare initiatives.” 