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University to appoint interim provost

By Joseph Lichterman, Editor in Chief
Published November 30, 2012

With University Provost Philip Hanlon set to assume the presidency at Dartmouth College in July, the University will have to select a new provost as it also prepares to launch a search for University President Mary Sue Coleman’s successor.

On Thursday, Coleman wrote in a campus-wide e-mail that she would name an interim provost in the coming weeks, and several administrators and University regents said they expect Coleman, whose contract will expire in 2014, to appoint an interim provost until her successor can make a permanent selection.

Regents Katherine White (D–Ann Arbor) and Denise Ilitch (D–Bingham Farms) each said they expect the University will hire an interim provost until the next president is appointed. Both said they’ve told Coleman that they would like her to hire an interim provost.

“I'm a sports person, so I really respect the ability of a person, a professional, a coach so to speak, to put their team together,” Ilitch said. “I have a lot of respect for that.”

The University declined to comment on the timetable for when an interim provost will be named, and White and Ilitch both said they were unaware if a search committee had been formed.

In 2010, Coleman chose Hanlon to become provost without forming a search committee or consulting with a search firm only two weeks after his predecessor, Teresa Sullivan, announced she would leave to become president at the University of Virginia.

James Duderstadt, the University’s president from 1988 to 1996 who also served as provost, said it’s critical for the provost and president to have a strong working relationship.

“One of the challenges, of course, is the president and provost form a very important team, and typically you want the president to have a significant influence over the provost that she or he will work with,” Duderstadt said in an interview. “Since (Coleman) is approaching the end of her tenure at Michigan, she’ll probably appoint an interim provost. The next permanent provost will most likely be chosen by the next president.”

While the president’s main focus is generally promoting the University externally — to donors, government officials, alumni and others — the provost typically works internally and is responsible for the University’s academic budget and the University’s dean’s report to the provost.

“It takes a very intimate relationship between the provost and the president to balance the inside and the outside and to make sure the university stays on a stable course,” Duderstadt said. “That’s why the decision of picking a provost is very much a decision that needs to be made by the president.”

Working in an interim capacity before becoming the University’s provost from 2002 to 2005, Paul Courant, now the dean of libraries, said he helped Coleman adjust to the presidency when she first arrived in Ann Arbor from the University of Iowa in 2002.

“I was able to introduce her, as it were, to the campus and introduce the campus to her,” Courant said. “I think that was useful to her.”

Courant said he had no direct knowledge of the search process, but noted the candidate for interim provost would “certainly be an insider” as opposed to someone hired from outside the University in order to ease the transition.

Historically, the University has promoted from within whenever it chooses a new provost. Sullivan, who came to the University in 2006 from the University of Texas, was the first provost hired from outside the University since at least the 1940s, Duderstadt said.

Because provosts at the University have many responsibilities — serving as both the chief academic and budgetary officer — it’s often helpful to appoint someone to the position who already has an understanding of how the institution works, Duderstadt said.

“(Sullivan) demonstrated in a very convincing way that you can come from outside and provide able leadership,” Duderstadt said. “So, you certainly don’t want to rule out outside candidates, although the tradition is that people typically look inside for those candidates.”

The nature of the provost position at the University has also resulted in a long history of University provosts moving onto presidencies, either at the University or elsewhere.

Before Sullivan left for Virginia, former Provost Nancy Cantor, who held the post from 1997-2001, left the University to assume the chancellor position at the University of Illinois and then the presidency at Syracuse University. Her predecessor, Bernard Machen, left the University in 1997 after a tenure of two years to become the University of Utah’s president. After a little more than a year as provost, Charles Vest became president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1990.

Dudersdadt and former University President Harold Shapiro, who later served as Princeton University’s president, are also former provosts.

While it’s still unknown who will succeed Hanlon at the University, the person will likely possess skills that will make them an attractive candidate for an eventual presidency. However, in order to be successful as provost, both on an interim and permanent basis, they must have a similar level of understanding to Hanlon regarding the University’s nuanced academic and budgetary cultures, officials said.

Ilitch praised Hanlon’s attention to the University’s budget: Despite cost-cutting efforts, Hanlon effectively kept cuts away from most of the University’s academic enterprises.

Similarly, Ilitch said the next provost needs to be “a person that has a kind of zealous commitment to the quality of the academia at the University — quality of professors, quality of the deans, being a strong people person, being very disciplined about the budget, knowing how to balance it properly so that quality doesn't suffer.”

White emphasized Hanlon’s commitment to undergraduate education, and said she expects his successor to also make an effort to improve the undergraduate experience. He has taught introductory calculus classes and a class about the University’s budgetary process during his time at the University.”

“He’s very focused on the undergraduate educational experience and how to take that experience into the next century and make sure that the classroom is a place where students and faculty are engaged in discussions and problem solving in ways that are different from their standard lecture format,” White said.

— Daily Staff Reporter Peter Shahin contributed to this report