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Of Lemurs and the Bottom Line
When Alison F. Richard, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, was named Yale’s provost last February, one of her comments struck a number of her colleagues as particularly apt. At the news conference called to announce her appointment, Richard, a 46-year-old professor of anthropology and environmental studies, likened her situation to an unfortunate scene from the French Revolution. “When the tumbrel carrying condemned prisoners was brought past, the crowd looked on with pity,” she said. “I suspect that many of you will look at me with the same expression.”
Indeed they might. For while Richard&squo;s selection was greeted with widespread enthusiasm by the Yale community, there were many on campus who wondered openly why anyone would want the University’s number-two job. Officially, its occupant serves as the University’s chief academic officer (after the President) and overseer of the budget. But according to Charles Long, a deputy provost who has now worked with five occupants of the office since he entered the administrative ranks in 1982, the best word to describe the mission on which Richard is now embarking is “all-encompassing.” The provost, he explains, “is more concerned with the day-to-day running of this place than any other person. There’s no problem that’s not the provost’s problem.” Indeed, the tasks undertaken by the office range from framing long-term financial strategies for the entire University to making certain that there is enough toilet paper in the residential colleges. “The provost is responsible for the allocation of the University’s resources,” explains Long. “The budget is a means to this end.”
Inevitably, the job involves saying no to lots of people. Not surprisingly, controversy comes with the territory.
It was not always so. When the office was created during a reorganization of the Yale curriculum and administration carried out in 1919, its first occupant, William Adams Brown, Class of 1886 and ’01PhD, was given no precise idea of what his responsibilities were supposed to be. The provostship, wrote the late historian George Wilson Pierson in Yale College: An Educational History, 1871–1921, was “an educational office without any Yale antecedents.” Part spokesman for the faculty, part point man for the President, the position was a response to a postwar trend toward the centralization of power in the hands of the administration, noted Pierson. The provost would be “a sort of vice-president in charge of education,” the historian explained in Yale: the University College, 1921–1937—and a person whose “leadership could hardly be exercised without some voice in budget-making and promotions.”
Brown, a Corporation member and a professor at the Union Theological Seminary, spent about a year in the post. He was followed first by the Reverend Williston Walker, a Divinity School professor, and, in 1922, by Wilbur Lucius Cross, the dean of the Graduate School. Each man explored some of the possibilities connected to the office, but according to Pierson, it was Henry Solon Graves, Class of 1892 and longtime dean of the Forestry School, who essentially defined the provostship during his tenure from 1923 to 1927 and gave it “real influence and power.”
While the details of the job description have changed to fit the needs of the time and the personality of the incumbent, the mandate and modus operandi of the position have remained largely unchanged since the days of Graves and of Charles Seymour ’08, ’11PhD, provost from 1928 to 1937 and later the 11th President of Yale. During their terms the centralization of authority accelerated and the provost became, as is true today, a kind of educational and budgetary czar.
As Richard takes up her responsibilities, she will be assisted by three deputy provosts and three associate provosts, each of whom handles a particular part of the University. Long, for example, oversees a number of humanities disciplines—English, philosophy, and theater studies among them—the schools of Drama and Law, and such units of Yale as the new mortgage program (see page 18), the office of institutional research, and the Whitney Humanities Center. He also works to ensure that the provost’s office itself runs smoothly.
The biology department, the Medical School, and Yale’s natural preserves are some of the items in the portfolio of Gordon M. Shepherd, deputy provost for the biomedical sciences and professor of neuroscience and neurobiology. Robert Szczarba, the Perry F. Smith Professor of Mathematics, carries the title of deputy provost for physical sciences and engineering but also monitors such units as the Center for Theoretical and Applied Neuroscience and the University machine shops.
Associate provost J. Lloyd Suttle counts the Art School and Yale College, along with athletics and the language labs, among his oversight responsibilities, while associate provost Arline McCord watches over African and African American studies, history, the Graduate School, the Boswell papers, and the Peabody Museum, among others. Associate provost Ann Ameling, who is also a professor of psychiatric mental health nursing, counts in her domain classics, Judaic studies, the schools of architecture, divinity, forestry, music, nursing, and management, the University Art Gallery, Sterling Memorial Library, and retirement policy.“Judy came in during one of Yale’s most difficult periods, and considering the situation and the degree of pessimism, she did a remarkable job.”
Deans, department heads, and directors submit their budget requests to the deputy or associate provost in charge of their respective area. The bucks start—or stop—with the provost, who determines the size of each component’s slice of Yale’s nearly billion-dollar resource pie. Given the fact that the revenues are not growing appreciably, and that such things as maintenance and financial aid are claiming an increasing share of the budget, the provost is often in the unenviable position of offering less than what the University’s various constituencies have requested.
As the events of the past several years have demonstrated all too clearly, the handling of how the resources are allocated can be almost as important as the amounts themselves. Faced with a budget deficit and buildings in desperate need of repair, President Benno C. Schmidt Jr. and Provost Frank Turner in 1990 convened the now-infamous Committee to Restructure the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Its recommendations, which included excising entire departments and reducing others, were widely perceived as unfair and sparked a near-revolt by some members of the faculty; Turner and, later, Schmidt resigned. Psychology professor Judith Rodin, who is has since become president of the University of Pennsylvania, succeeded Turner and gets considerable credit for turning things around at Yale. “Judy came in during one of Yale’s most difficult periods, and considering the situation and the degree of pessimism, she did a remarkable job,” says one member of the administration. “Her major achievement is that the budget is well on its way to being balanced, and it was done without sacrificing programs.”
Rodin, who was herself a member of the restructuring committee, accomplished this task by belt-tightening and increased efficiency—by shared pain, with the emphasis on sharing. Where Turner’s term is seen in retrospect by many as exemplifying government-by-fiat—a style that has few devotees on campus—Rodin draws praise for her politics of inclusion. The lesson has not been lost on her successor.
“I cannot emphasize too strongly that the more the leadership provided by the provost is informed and supported by the leadership of the faculty, the better off the institution will be,” says Richard, who promises to maintain an office that is “responsive, efficient, and quick in supporting, or holding the line, on any and all requests that come through.” In addition, she says she plans to concern herself with strategic planning for Yale’s future, and to join the national debate as an active voice in defense of the value of higher education.
However excited—and humbled—she is about her new post, Richard admits that she did not accept the position without considerable soul-searching. She is, after all, a highly regarded researcher whose ongoing field work has, since 1970, taken her to Madagascar every year to study the evolution of social patterns in a group of primates known as lemurs. That research—characterized by Princeton primate biologist Alison Jolly, who has also studied lemurs in Madagascar, as “an extraordinary record of achievement”—has resulted in two books, Behavioral Variation: Case Study of a Malagasy Lemur (Bucknell University Press, 1978) and Primates in Nature (W. H. Freeman, 1985). She has also written more than 30 papers, many of them in collaboration with her husband Robert Dewar, who chairs the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut. Richard says she expects her research to take “a far back seat” during her term as provost.
Nevertheless, she intends to return regularly to Africa to gather data (the analysis can wait, she explains), and she feels confident that her efforts, begun in 1974 with colleagues at the University of Madagascar’s School of Agronomy to conserve Madagascar’s beleaguered natural environment, will continue.
Leaving science for the more-than-fulltime demands of the provost’s office was not an easy decision. Nor was taking on a job that threatens to place even more demands on Richard’s already overbooked schedule and take more time away from her husband, their two daughters, her flower garden, her fly fishing, and another of her passions, opera.
Equally intimidating is the financial dilemma the provost must face, for although the University is decidedly calmer than it was when Rodin took office, and this year’s $960-million budget will have a deficit significantly less than feared—$12 million instead of a formerly anticipated $20 million, and heading steadily downward—the ink is still red. Getting into the black, says Long, will prove “painful.” When it comes to finding places to save money, he says, “there’s nothing easy anymore.”
So there are difficult, and probably unpopular, decisions to be made. But Richard’s many boosters say that she is more than equal to the task. “She has a tough and tenacious mind, and she’s not afraid to be decisive,” says Richard Brodhead, who was appointed dean of the College in 1993. “But she’s caring, and she knows that everything that comes up as a budgetary issue has a human side.” As an example, Brodhead cites Richard’s four-year tour as director of the Peabody. “She considered the Peabody’s collection, which could have been seen merely as a set of static objects, as a place for education,” notes Brodhead.
That perception bore dramatic results. Over the years, the museum had drifted out of Yale’s intellectual mainstream, and, aside from its use by elementary-school–aged children, it was a decidedly underappreciated Yale resource. But during Richard’s term as director, the Peabody, in conjunction with the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, began a $20-million fund drive to create both an Environmental Science Center and a new facility designed to provide better housing for and improved access to the museum’s massive collection, which includes more than 11 million specimens. Equally important, says YIBS director Leo Buss, “She galvanized the staff in a way that had never been accomplished.” There had been a feeling on the part of the curators and staff that they were not valued by the University, but Raymond J. Pupedis, manager of the Peabody’s vast entomology collection, explains that Richard changed that. Her tenure, he says, was “very beneficial to the museum. You might say she jump-started the place.”
At this juncture, Yale appears less in need of jumper cables than a steady foot on the accelerator. “The last few years have been turbulent, but I sense now a real change of mood on campus,” says the new provost. “There is stability in the leadership of the University, and there’s optimism and a real resolve that together we can meet these challenges.”
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