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February 9, 2018

Initial Provost Search Town Halls Draw Ideas for Focus on Faculty, Student Issues

As the University seeks its next provost, the first pair of town halls aimed at gathering Pitt community input drew 90 people, and a diversity of opinions, on Feb. 5.

Rob A. Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research and chair of the 24-member provost search committee, noted that candidates for the position being vacated by Provost Patricia E. Beeson have a large task ahead. They must show “sensitivity for the student side of the experience as well as the faculty side of the experience” at a major research institution and should be “someone who recognizes the need to be at times the outward face of the institution to a variety of high-level stakeholders … possibly in conflict situations.”

Beeson drew praise from town hall attendees for her work with the Division of Student Affairs and for the legacy of the themed years focusing on sustainability, the humanities, diversity and health, which have received cross-campus participation and continue to inspire events and interdepartmental collaboration.

Overall, Rutenbar said, the University’s chief academic officer must “help balance the inevitable complicated trade-offs” inherent in the office’s duties, which include fostering scholarship, setting academic policies and overseeing global initiatives.

Faculty-Centered Issues

Tyler Bickford, English faculty member, hoped the new provost would not press for swift or radical change for change’s sake: “We’ve had slow and steady growth,” he said. “We have had success with a model that respects the baseline. It’s like the housing market in Pittsburgh: We never had a crash because we never had a spike.”

Additionally, noted John Lyon, faculty member in the German department: Given unionization movements among graduate students and faculty, “whoever comes in is going to have to be familiar with those issues … and address those concerns.”

Tom McWhorter, a non-tenure stream (NTS) English department lecturer, hopes the new provost will address “how to make a career of what I’m doing [when] there’s no opportunity to do research, to have sabbaticals where you can write. It lends to the sense of precarity that most of us have.” The new provost, he hopes, will institute policies to ensure that NTS posts are more secure and better paid, allowing Pitt to demonstrate that it is “keeping our teaching faculty at the top of their game.”

Vincent Johnson, director of administration in the School of Law, noted that the next provost must be aware of the uncertainty of Pitt’s state funding, which creates anxiety “and has a domino effect on how we run the school. That’s a huge challenge to navigate.”

Randy McCready, director of financial aid in the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, said: “We talk a lot about our value proposition. We’re one of the most expensive publics in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that that’s a bad thing. And so the provost understanding how to sell that … I think is important.” He also believed fruitful interaction with the regional campuses is vital for the University’s new chief academic officer: “How will the provost keep those pieces together?” he asked. “We can use the regional campuses to help grow the University of Pittsburgh as a whole.”

Darren Whitfield, School of Social Work faculty member, urged that the new provost help to break through the separation among individual academic departments and between the arts and sciences and the health sciences.

Suggestions for other provost candidate qualifications included:

  • Be prepared to take advantage of new collaborations with the city of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and the local tech sector.
  • Focus on increasing diversity and inclusion among the student body and the faculty.
  • Find new and creative ways to foster scholarship, especially in an academic world where publishing is less emphasized and tenure is less common.
  • Know the strengths of Pitt’s urban setting and the advantages of its location in the City of Pittsburgh as tools for promoting the University.
  • Increase opportunities for students and faculty to practice civic engagement here, including more chances for students and staff to work together.

Concerns for Student-Relevant Issues

Among student-focused issues raised at the town halls, Lyon pressed the need “to reassess our assessments in a couple of ways. What tools do we use? How meaningful are these assessments that we do, at the ground level, when most of us aren’t trained to do that?”

“I’d like to have someone who is aware of the mental health crisis that is going on” among students who need more help in handling the stress of going to college and being on their own, said Sara Jones, associate director of the Office of International Services.

Christine Wankiiri-Hale, associate dean for student affairs and faculty member in the School of Dental Medicine, suggested that the new provost maintain Pitt’s emphasis on students providing services to all sectors of the communities surrounding campus.

“A lot of the things that get framed as challenges are really opportunities,” concluded Bickford. He suggested that the next provost lead Pitt toward endeavors that would make the University a pioneering institution, such as bringing female faculty salaries up to parity with male faculty salaries or finding a fresh way to greatly increase recruitment of African-American students and faculty.

“We would be an extraordinary success story,” he said. “There are so many people in higher education today who would really like to be a part of such an organization. If you really want to be distinctive and really say Pitt is one of a kind, those are really opportunities.”

Next Steps in the Search Process

The committee’s involvement in the search for a new provost includes helping to identify top candidates, refining a short list for interviews and overseeing the interview processes. The committee’s work concludes when it provides a recommended set of final candidates to the chancellor.

A profile of the position should be completed this week for posting on the new search website, and the University hopes to begin conducting interviews by the end of this term.

Consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates’ Washington, D.C., office, is aiding in the search. The firm previously assisted in finding the first dean for the new School of Computing and Information and is helping in the current search for the new dean of the Swanson School of Engineering.

A town hall will be held at the Pitt–Greensburg campus on Feb. 14 from 10 to 11 a.m. in the Ferguson Theater of Smith Hall. Later that same day, a town hall will be hosted on the Pitt–Johnstown campus from 2 to 3 p.m. in the John P. Murtha Center. Both will be led by Rutenbar and the search committee. Additional town halls are said to be announced at a later date.


This story was corrected on Feb. 12. The role of the search committee was previously incorrectly described.


Marty Levine,, 412-758-4859


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