The following excerpts of the conversation have been edited for clarity and length.
KIERNAN MATHEWS: Is there a gap between what the biggest challenges are for deans, provosts, and institutions and what the biggest challenges should be?
BARRY MILLS: I think there is. You all face it every day, because the challenge in any university of getting diverted by the problem that’s on your desk that day is the biggest issue. And how to escape that is the hardest part of leadership, in some ways, because you’ve got to organize your operation in a way that those issues get taken care of [and] gives you the time to focus on what’s going to improve your university.
MATHEWS: How do you define success, then? How does the president define success, or the dean or provost, and how might a person define it for themselves?
MILLS: The glib answer is that the faculty isn’t complaining. But I think success for the institution is that you have faculty members who are engaged throughout their careers in teaching and research and in service. It’s about how your faculty are prospering as people and as researchers, but it’s also about how they’re delivering for the students. That’s success.
I actually don’t believe that provosts or deans or presidents should worry about underperformers. I was always much more focused on my over-performers and supporting them, because the upside that those folks will provide to you is so much greater.
Now from your point of view [as academic leaders], what’s success? I think it goes to figuring out why you’re doing a job. This is a career. This is a life choice that you’ve made. So trying to figure out how you align that life choice that you’ve made with what your personal goals are—that’s success.
"Success for the institution is that you have faculty members who are engaged throughout their careers in teaching and research and in service. It’s about how your faculty are prospering as people and as researchers, but it’s also about how they’re delivering for the students."
MATHEWS: What do trustees expect of provosts or deans?
MILLS: The trustees who are trustees of those [big] places for the most part have chosen to be trustees. They’re looking to be informed by you about what’s happening at the institution, so your responsibility to them, even if they don’t want to hear it, is to translate what’s going on in your institution on the academic side in a way that they understand.
On the public side, there you have people on your boards who have been basically appointed by your governor or your legislature. They’re on these boards for a whole variety of reasons. There, the role of the provost is to educate these folks, but it’s to operate your places in ways [that satisfy] the mission that those variety of constituencies hold. It’s a completely different job.
Trustees need to know what’s actually going on in the academic enterprise. They need to know it because it’s what the place is about, and it’s what you’re going to be asking them for money to support. It’s your job to expose faculty members to them. When there’s mystery [about what both sides are doing], it breeds distrust that’s not healthy.
MATHEWS: That brings me to my next question, about the struggle of deans and provosts at the intersection of the academic program and the administration. How do you navigate the waters between faculty and the president?
MILLS: [The faculty are] expecting you… to lead them, but at the same time be one of them, representing their ideas to the powers that be, whoever they are. So you’re caught in the middle. If you’re perceived as being too close to the president, then you’re not representing the faculty and you’re not doing your job. If, on the other hand, you’re too [aligned] with the faculty, you’re going to drive your president crazy, because there’s going to be this mismatch. So how you navigate that is not easy.
I think that if you treat [faculty members] like grown-ups, and with respect, and you explain your positions, and you show sympathy but not roll over, you will be respected. You can’t be the smartest person in the room always, and you have to demonstrate the most underappreciated leadership skill, which is listening. Not to what they’re saying, but to what they really mean.
There are some people whom you’re just never going to win over. But if you get the lion’s share of that faculty to understand that what you’re doing and why you’re doing it is rational, good for the institution, and ultimately good for them, they’ll be with you.
You have to be comfortable in your own skin. Overcommunicate, and don’t leave it to somebody else to give the message…. If you’re a provost at a big place, and you think, “I’m being transparent,” don’t assume it’s getting down to the next level—that’s where you get in trouble.
"You can’t be the smartest person in the room always, and you have to demonstrate the most underappreciated leadership skill, which is listening. Not to what they’re saying, but to what they really mean."
MATHEWS: When things get really charged on campus, how do you lead so many constituencies through questions about academic freedom, diversity, equity, inclusion, safe spaces, mental health?
MILLS: Every institution is different. Every institution has its own personality, and you need to understand your own institution’s personality as a starting measure. How you might react at Bowdoin is going to be different than how you might react at Harvard, than how you might react at Arizona State.
I think it’s important for a small group of leadership—your president, your chancellor, you, whoever runs your student life piece, the person who does public relations—to get in a room and talk about [your plan]. What’s our position? Not in a reactive way—what’s the right answer for our place? From an institutional point of view, you’ve got to have a group of people together who trust one another. And if you’re in an institution that has you off to the side… that’s a problem. You should be at the table and you should think of yourselves as deserving to be at the table. Your team needs to know one another really well, and you need to know what’s best for your institution, and then you need to stick to that in a way that shows resolve.
Your first call should not be to the lawyers. I was one for a long time. The lawyers will put you in a crouch position, protecting yourself, immediately. Many schools get into trouble by trying to protect themselves too fast, rather than being honest with their community.
"You’ve got to have a group of people together who trust one another... Your team needs to know one another really well, and you need to know what’s best for your institution, and then you need to stick to that in a way that shows resolve."
MATHEWS: One of our learners in the audience is asking what advice you have for provosts who need to have difficult conversations with their presidents.
MILLS: That’s a really hard situation. It’s important to have that conversation with that leader, even if they don’t want to hear it. As painful as it is, you have to try. But if it’s gotten to the point that it’s at... it’s not likely to work. And if it really is that bad, it’s important, as an effective leader, to understand where the other levers of influence and power are in that institution, and have a conversation [with them]. And that’s not being disloyal, that’s actually being responsible to the institution. Because the institution isn’t about that president, it’s about the people in that institution—faculty, staff, students. And if that president isn’t hearing it, that institution’s leadership, wherever that sits, needs to understand what’s going on. You must speak up.
But have that conversation [with the levers of influence] in a way that’s substantive and not personal. It’s not that you’re griping, it’s that you’re here because you believe in your institution.
MATHEWS: What are we doing to produce a future for ourselves [as institutions], given all the changes ahead?
MILLS: I think each institution should understand what its mission is and how it’s going to achieve that mission. There’s so much mission creep, there’s so much confusion. There’s not enough resources in today’s world to do it all, so trying to understand what you’re really about and do it really, really well is, I think, the fundamental question. I think people are going to have to be open to different ways of delivering education. They’re going to have to be open to educating different kinds of people at different times of their life.
The other piece of it [is] about tenure and promotion reviews. And this whole argument and issue about faculty tenure is actually yesterday’s question, because so much of the education is being delivered by non-tenure-track people. We need to focus on that as academic leaders and not make believe that’s just a little issue. It’s a big part of how our students are being educated. But we don’t talk about that—we talk about the traditional modes of education.
"So much of the education is being delivered by non-tenure-track people. We need to focus on that as academic leaders and not make believe that’s just a little issue."
MATHEWS: What responsibilities do administrators have and what responsibilities do faculty have, or what contributions might faculty make, in situations of financial challenge or restructuring?
MILLS: I think faculty can be, and should be, engaged in those conversations when people are trying to figure out how to navigate through the financial issues. But it’s important that everybody be on a level playing field and understand what the financial situation is and what the drivers are. If you get people in a room who have their vested interests but don’t understand all the drivers, it doesn’t help. The people who participate need to be educated up on what’s causing the problem and where the problem exists, and what are the levers to fix it.
MATHEWS: So, how do you balance your big ideas or your vision with institutional capacity?
MILLS: There’s a moment where people actually need you to make the decision, but you have to figure out when that moment is. When I got to Bowdoin, because I was a non-traditional president…I knew I couldn’t go anywhere near the academic program for a number of years, because no one would trust me. And I went and did other change. We changed completely the demographics of the college admission class and a whole bunch of other things, but I didn’t go anywhere near the academic program. You have to be careful as you implement change. You have to move the needle, but it can’t constantly be moving.
Places can take institutional change only to a point, and there are arcs of when it can happen. Understanding that is the measure of leadership. How you feel that out is you have to be willing to listen to people, and you have to have a group of people you trust who will tell you the truth.