Q&A with Provost Peter Uvin
Issue   |   Wed, 09/04/2013 - 10:22

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

A: I come from Belgium, originally, in the heart of Europe, from near Brussels. In my family I was the first one to go to College. I studied in Belgium, then Sweden and then Switzerland where I got my Ph. D. I studied law and politics, two different degrees, and got my Ph. D. in international relations in Geneva.

Research-wise, most of my work has been focused on development and most of it in East Africa, in Burundi and Rwanda.. I also became specialized because all of the countries I worked in ended up in war, there is no correlation there, I hope, but nonetheless I became very interested over the years in the relationship between development enterprise and the whole project of development, and the dynamics that lead to violence in countries and conversely then, how could you use international assistance to actually decrease violence. So I became very interested in this both intellectually, but also very practically. I did a lot of consulting and I did a lot of work in the field. I would spend three or four months in Africa working with agencies, international or local. I’ve always been quite a doer. I do scholarship, and I love scholarship, but I mainly do it to make change happen whereas others are more fundamental.

Six, seven years ago after I had had a sabbatical where I spent a year in Burundi walking through the country and interviewing people I decided to stop working in Africa. I had enough of being foreign speaking to other people. I decided I wanted to do something in my own society, the US not being entirely my own society, but nonetheless I’ve lived her now for over 20 years, I have kids here. This is my country now. At the time, my university, Tufts, was looking for an academic dean. I got the job and did that for six years. Then I came here to become Provost because I liked making things happen in the university or in the college.

Q: What inspired you to start a career in college administration?

A: First of all, this was something I knew about. I’ve been living in colleges or universities since I was 18. In Africa, I know something about it too but you remain an outsider the whole time and you’re trying to interpret another place it feels a bit artificial. For me, to be in a university does not feel artificial. I have been spending 30 plus years of my life in it as a student, a graduate student, the whole professor career and administration. So, I feel I know this.

The second thing that I like about administration, oddly enough, is that I am a person who hates power. I don’t like power, and in a university administration you actually have no traditional power because you are dealing with professors who are very empowered, who have tenure, processes of government that are extremely consensual and based on shared governance and so on. So you are in a situation where truly all you can use is the capacity to facilitate good conversation, to bring smart people together, to create good information, but not just dictate or power over. I like that, I really enjoy working with people to make stuff happen rather than just telling people what to do. I think this comes from my experience in development. There you can’t tell people what to do because they won’t do it. They’ll find 200 ways not to do it or to pretend to do it as long as you’re there and then to stop doing it them moment you look away. So if you want to make anything happen that is sustainable you have to work with people and create ownership. I like those things, and I think in many odd ways university administration is very similar. It would be different if you were the CEO of a company or a general in an army. There you have power over. But that is not the case in a university. I like that, it feels right to me.

Thirdly, since I was a kid I believed in teaching. I love good teaching. To me, it didn’t happen often. But when it happened it was beautiful. I can still say the names of people I had when I was 14, who truly made me the person I am. Unfortunately there were not many, because I come from a much less good education system. But I’ve always had this love for making good teaching happen, either by being one myself or in a place like this by just being part of an institution that has a commitment to it. So I love a job like this.

Q: How do you see your role fitting into the administration at a school that has never before had a provost?

A: I think in practice the main reason I got the job was that I was willing to take a job that no one know what it was. I imagine most of the other candidates were scared stiff of that, but I was willing to accept it. So, it wasn’t clear what the job would be when I took it on. It is clear that the president and the board and quite a few other members of the faculty and senior staff believe that Amherst is slightly under-administered. In terms of it’s management there is too much ad hoc decision making, often driven by personality and not so much people who really have systems in place and lack a certain degree of experience and professionalism and people dedicated to doing the right thing at the right moments and everyone knowing what their job is. I think in part there are just not enough people to do it. So everybody is scrambling and improvising and reacting to crisis, that unfortunately tend to happen all the time, and as a result you are just kind of stagnant, just treading. I think the president wanted to create a situation where she had a whole team around her of people who know their tasks, there are enough of the to fulfill their tasks, they had experience with this type of tasks and so on.
That said, that still begs the question of what does a provost completely do? It seemed a could do a number of things that were either not done so far, sort of falling between the cracks, things that were done ad hoc, or could be done more or better. One that has clearly fallen on my plate so far seems to be strategic planning. I oversee and facilitate and set up the whole strategic planning process, which will start soon. I played a key role in setting up all of that and will over the next 12 or 15 months, however long it will take, continue playing a key role in that. Again, it’s nothing world shocking to do that, but somebody has got to do it. If I weren’t here, it would be one of the deans who are already super overworked having this added onto their tasks. Now you can say “dump it on the provost, he’ll take care of it.”

The second area I’ve taken a lot of leadership in is what you could broadly call diversity or community. I sent an email out the community that was precisely about this area. It seems that this is an area that had fallen between some cracks as well. The College has done a lot to attract a wide range of people, and it has done that very well with great dedication and talent and resources being put where they ought to be put. But then afterwards, frankly, not much was done with it here. If you look at this whole debacle with the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) and so on, if you compare that to our peer schools, it’s frankly relatively painful. It is like we are 25 years behind them. It is not even a year or two, it’s a generation or two, in resources, in the structure set up, in the experience acquired. Again it seems there was a constant change and turnover of people involved, some her part time, some here for six months, another one who is part time doing this. That is not the way to run an important area like this at a college that is world class. I’ve taken over that area, and clearly this year I hope to immediately hope to start setting in motion some changes which are people who work in that area, but also using the strategic planning to really rethink and dramatically upgrade what we do in this area. I act as sort of a chief diversity officer, though that’s not a very interesting name. I imagine that down the road we will hire another professional who will report to me and who will hopefully be someone who has been doing this for fifteen or twenty years and who will come in with even more ideas, but I didn’t want to do that right away. I want first to know what we want to do as a college and then find the right person to make it happen. I didn’t want to do the hiring first and then find out we hired the wrong profile.

I am also very involved and oversee institutional research, which is just a very small piece, but a good piece. We have an extremely powerful institutional research office here at this college. It is far better than anything I’ve seen before in my life. Using that data well and commissioning from them the right sort of data is something that I’m involved with and it is a great pleasure. They are very good at what they do.

Another area I am playing a role in is ‘the international,’ so to speak. The Office of Study Abroad now reports to me. But also the international students who come here is something that I’m very interested in. Everything, the outflow and the inflow of international people is something that is important to me and I am trying to take an initiative in.

Q: You have had previous experience in college administration as the Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies and the academic dean at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. How will your past experiences shape your goals for your time at Amherst?

A: They always do. It is hard not to. I started my career in this country at Brown where I was for seven years as a regular professor, teaching two or three courses and advising undergraduates. In some ways, here is more like my Brown experience because at Tufts was I was in a graduate school. I’ve worked at two very good places that are, frankly, in the same business as we are. They draw more or less the same type of students that we do, though they are bigger. Both Brown and Tufts at the undergraduate level are probably five, six times bigger than we are. With bigness comes certain advantages; they can afford in certain areas far more. If you go back to diversity, Tufts has seven centers dedicated to various aspects of diversity, each of which has one or two or three full time employees. It’s a different ball game entirely. We can learn from this. I know these people; I’ve talked to these people. I have a direct insight from another place. I think that helps a lot. I think that Biddy Martin deliberately knew that it helps to look outside sometimes. It is a quite insular place. Sometimes that is the price of being good at stuff. You become maybe slightly smirk or self satisfied. And there are reasons to be satisfied. You are one of the best colleges of its kind in the U.S. and in the world. You are doing well financially, academically. You feel like “hey life is good, why would we change one minutia of what we are doing?” And yet smugness and over self-confidence is a dangerous thing. I think it’s good to bring people in who come from elsewhere and who can look at these things from a distance and say, “hold up, why aren’t you doing this? Why are you behind on some of these things by a generation or two?” People who will dare to say it. So I think coming with an outsiders perspective to this has strength. It has a weakness too. You might not know enough. But it has the strength in that you can shake the tree a little bit; bring in some fresh ideas to things. That is what I hope to bring.

Q: What do you think are Amherst’s major challenges today? How do you plan to tackle these?

A: Oh dear, there are a bunch. On one hand not so many. The College does not face many great challenges, unlike many other liberal arts colleges, state universities and research universities. We, in all likelihood, could continue for decades without changing a thing and I bet you we would still be around. We have more money than much of our completion, in the world in fact, on a per student basis. We have a lot that protects us. And yet, and yet and yet, it is so hard to be sure of that. I see three.

One is disruptive technology or disruptive change. There is this argument that some things, technology in this case, like online learning, can create new players in the field, who can actually suddenly and totally and without any warning put under attack even the most dominant and top players. The reason why it is disruptive is that you can’t attack players like us in the normal way, by becoming like us, because we have more money, a longer history, we attract better people because of our reputation and so on. So you can’t actually become like us in the normal way. It is almost impossible except if you are another one of these very top institutions. Under normal circumstances, it is impossible. But, sometimes, something changes in the nature of the game, and online learning could be that game changer. We could suddenly have a situation in which in a few short years Amherst may find itself playing a game it has never had to play before. Now I don’t know if this is going to happen. It may be that there will always be enough people who believe that only person to person interaction in every course for a full 48 months in the way to go and who are willing to pay under all circumstances 10,20, 30, 40, 200 times more for that than that exact same knowledge taught by some Harvard professor behind your computer. Maybe. But maybe not. And if it is going to happen, we better be ready. I have no idea what is going to happen, but something is.

Number two is the financial side of things. We are crazily expensive and we are not getting any cheaper. People are pissed off about it. Society at large is angry. Politicians are angry. Everybody is angry. Except for those who come here and absolutely love it because it is a phenomenal education. It is a great product and worth every dollar. Nonetheless, it keeps on putting pressure and adds to potential financial disruptions. There is something there. I don’t think it is about money only. It really is about the business model by which we function, what value we put on peoples education, what can we tell the world about “this is why it’s worth it.” It’s money plus the whole story behind it. What do we stand for? Ten years from now, what will we say is the reason to come to a place like this? And by the way, it will stay expensive.

The last one is diversity in its broadest sense, not just a specific debate about the continuing act of historical discrimination, but a broader one about learning to work and live in communities with vast amounts of difference. Increasingly, anyone who is successful in life must have the capability of being sympathetic to, empathetic to, caring, capable of listening to and communicating to, learning from people who are massively different. And that is not so obvious, it is actually pretty hard. Places like this are an enormously powerful incubator for that potential. I don’t think we are there yet, but I think we could be that.

Q: How to you plan to tackle these challenges?

A: For now, the main one is strategic planning. The whole process is designed to explicitly face these questions. Beyond that, universities or colleges, at their best, are two things. One is that they are deliberative democracies. They are places where truly, if they function well, all their stake holders, or their citizens, can bring their voices to bear on subjects, in a way that is akin to the old city states in Athens. We can hear you and we can hear you carefully, not just once every four years when there is an election. If it works well, a deliberative democracy is capable of constantly acting. If it does not work well, it is manipulation, which is not hard to do as well. But I am a deep believer in the beauty of the deliberative democracy. The other thing is that ideally universities can be places of learning, which is why I am so interested in working on institutional research, because, to be a learning organization, you need data. You have to be willing to face up to, not what you think or dream or anecdotes, and really know the subject and applied the same kind of scientific dispassionateness to the management of the college as we apply to our own research or lab. That is not necessarily going to happen. Many professors, I think, because they live in this sort of world full time and they identify very deeply with it tend to have a relatively less scientific view of management, and a more deeply identity influenced view. I want this place to be a learning place, constantly willing to look at the data and see what it tells us in a way that all voices are heard, a deliberative democracy, and then come to a smart decision where we can react the whole time. I want us to be an organization where we are constantly driven in both a data based and input driven way.