Faculty Debate Creation of Provost Position
Issue   |   Wed, 02/22/2012 - 02:36

The main topic of discussion at the Feb. 21 faculty meeting was President Biddy Martin’s proposal for the addition of a new provost position at the College. According to President Martin’s vision, the added senior administrator would relieve pressures on the existing administrators and spearhead long-term, strategic planning, the integration of programs across the College and other initiatives across the College community.

According to President Martin, the Amherst administration is smaller than that of many peer institutions and needs to expand in order to deal with the challenges the College currently faces. A provost would help the College tackle some of these issues, from local questions such as faculty recruitment and Five College cooperation to grander issues like the significance of the liberal arts education.

“I would love to see Amherst take more of a leadership role nationally and internationally; why should Harvard think they are leading the discussion on the teaching of the liberal arts?” she asked. “That is Amherst’s forte … There are opportunities for Amherst to extend its reach, and we should seize them.”

She also stressed the importance of long-term planning, but reminded the faculty that she was not attempting to make Amherst more like larger institutions such as Cornell or the Univ.of Wisconsin, Madison, where she has previously served.
“We need to make planning a rolling horizon, not something we do in reaction to crises,” she said. “We want to be out ahead of things, not catching up when the market crashes or an opportunity rises that we otherwise run the risk of missing. I don’t want Amherst to be like Cornell or Wisconsin. I would like Amherst to be more itself and that requires administrative capacity [that] we need to build a little.”

A key caveat of the provost position is that it is not designed in the traditional sense of an executive figure between the President and the deans, but rather as an additional person on the same level as the deans of faculty and students that reports to the President. Facing concerns about further bureaucratic clutter, President Martin assured the faculty that the provost would not have his own office in the way those deans do, but would work with a smaller staff in collaboration with the deans.

However, Professor Austin Sarat feared that future presidents might not understand the unique balance of power President Martin was proposing and attempt to make the position more executive, interfering with the intimate relationship between the President and the faculty. To solve the potential problem, the faculty debated a potential new name — such as the Dean of the College — that would still attract candidates of the highest caliber.

Much of the faculty debate centered around the logistics of the position, such as whether the provost should be chosen from within the Amherst faculty or from a national search. While some professors believed that a faculty member would be optimal because he or she would already understand Amherst culture, Sarat argued that a national search would bring diversity and a fresh perspective. As the discussion moves forward, the Committee of Six will work out the nuances of the position and begin a search as soon as possible.

The rest of the faculty meeting was mostly dedicated to a major problem facing the Library. Between 1986 and 2008, the price of serial publications has risen exorbitantly, eating up much of the Library acquisitions budget. Last year, the Library denied $30,000 worth of purchase requests because of the price of serials. To combat this problem, the Faculty Library Committee proposed that the College cap serials at 70 percent of the acquisitions budget, eliminate duplication between online and print subscriptions and end subscriptions to rarely-used journals. The College would also shift from subscribing to two particularly expensive serials and follow a pay-per-view policy that would hopefully cut costs.

Professor of History Margaret Hunt captured the crux of the problem when she pointed out that the College could no longer afford to acquire precious primary source collections, allow new faculty to purchase materials in their subject areas or acquire new data sets because of the exorbitant prices of serials. While this is a national problem, the College needed to take action against it “eating up other things that are important to what we do.”