This is an expanded version of the story that appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the Mason Spirit.
Although not as visible as a university president, the provost runs the academic side of most American universities. The word “provost” comes from the Middle English and has a number of definitions, including the keeper of a prison and the chief magistrate of a Scottish burgh. In this instance, it is a high-ranking university administrative officer. At George Mason University, this person is Peter Stearns, who has been provost and executive vice president of academic affairs since January 2000.
As provost, Stearns works closely with the deans and directors of Mason’s 11 academic units to articulate Mason’s academic mission and ensure that it is carried out. He also plays a leading role in assessing the performance of the units and programs. In essence, he grades the folks who grade the students—and he decides whether classes will be cancelled on snowy days.
While the provost leads all things academic at Mason, a glance at the university organizational chart would show that Stearns shares a line with senior vice president Morrie Scherrens, who oversees the business side of the university. Such Mason groups as Intercollegiate Athletics, Facilities, and Auxiliary Enterprises (for example, parking and food services) come under Scherrens’s purview.
Virginia’s current budget situation has the two men working closely together, holding budget forums throughout the year to give reports, quell rumors, and, probably most important, answer questions.
“A lot of people take them for granted,” says university president Alan Merten of his dynamic duo. “The relationship between Peter and Morrie involves by far the most mutual respect I’ve seen between two chief officers. At most universities, they sort of bump into each other and don’t get what the other does.”
It is partially to Stearns’s credit that Mason was renamed to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of Great Colleges to Work For. Despite state economic woes, the university was cited for yet another year in the categories of collaborative governance and confidence in senior leadership, among others.
Harvard-educated, Stearns came to Mason from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he served as dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Heinz Professor of History. Over the course of his career, Stearns has also taught at Harvard, the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and Rutgers.
Oh, and did we mention he is a brilliant historian? Actually, those are his boss’ words, but many others concur. In fact, Stearns has the distinction of being the only provost and one of the few people in the world to have published more than 100 books. Many of his books deal with world history; others provide an interesting historical lens with which to view parenting, dieting, anxiety, being “cool,” and even death. Some of his titles include American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, and American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style.
Mason Spirit recently had the opportunity to sit down with Stearns, a man known for his wit, candor, and short meetings, to find out what he thinks about holding the second-most powerful position at the university.
What do you like best about the job?
Oh, that’s easy. The thing I like best about the job is the range of things you have to think about, usually in a single day. Lots of different areas to make decisions on or advise about. That’s just endlessly interesting to me.
What do you like least about the job?
I have two answers. One is that resources are too constrained and not just because of current budget circumstances. Now I don’t expect the state to give us the University of Virginia’s level of per-student funding, but they haven’t moved us up significantly since I got here in relation to other major universities in the state. If you look back on my 10 and a half years, we haven’t had many really good budget years. When I first came here in January 2000, they talked about us getting 25 million new dollars from the state. We ended up getting $9 million, which is great, but it ain’t 25 million. There’s been nothing like that since, though we’ve certainly done well in generating research funding. The second downside is probably inherent and not necessarily worse here than elsewhere, but bitter personnel disputes wake me up at night. Happily, they aren’t constant. There aren’t any right now, but there will be two or three a year.
You are known for your short succinct meetings.
It is a style. I didn’t go into it deliberately thinking I want to be a man known for short meetings, but I know I am. The plus side is I can see more people, and I hope move things along more quickly. The downside is I’m sure I’m abrupt. I’m sure people think I haven’t listened enough, and I’m sure that sometimes they are right. There are trade-offs.
It appears that you interact more with the faculty than the students.
That’s a drawback of the job. This is a faculty-oriented position, much more than a student-oriented one. I’ve tried to compensate for that. It’s one of the reasons I teach. I don’t go to class to talk about university issues, but at least I see some students. When I got here, I set up a student advisory committee that has worked pretty well. The students usually end up being more concerned about university life issues than provost issues, which is a slight downside.
So you continue to teach?
Teaching was part of the job description, and I really welcomed that. I think every upper administrator should teach. That is what we are supposed to do, and at least you keep your hand in the main business of the university. The caliber of students here was one of the things that really pleased me. Carnegie Mellon has good students, and on paper they are a little better than Mason, but any gap is much less than I expected.
You are the top academic officer. Why continue doing scholarship and publishing?
Being able to write a little bit everyday is actually relaxing for me. It gets tense every once in a while when you are trying to finish something or there are time constraints, but overall I view it as a diversion. Also, it helps keep some of the other issues in perspective and in balance. And I hope, every so often, I do have something to say.
Do you realize one of the definitions of provost is prison-keeper?
Actually, Lloyd Griffiths [dean of the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering] just sent me a postcard from Charleston, South Carolina, of a provost prison down there. I passed it around at the deans and directors [meeting]. What I haven’t done, and actually I should do, is figure out a little bit about how and when the word began to evolve. The provost marshal in the army is still a disciplinary figure.
Do you aspire to be a university president?
No, I made that decision years ago. After I got here, I had a couple of bids I could’ve pursued but I didn’t try. I never kept my name in a presidential search. There are two reasons for that. I think they are related. I couldn’t do the scholarship. I would have to give up the journal I edit. I didn’t want to make that tradeoff. Think about the way I’ve done it. I really can stop and just go back and be faculty. It would be a jolt, but it is doable. If you become a president, it is really hard to go back.
The second reason is I don’t think I would be good at it. I’m quite shy. I don’t mix well. I think even as a provost it is a drawback that I don’t have better schmoozing skills. When I know somebody or in the deans and directors context, I don’t feel timid, but at a random social gathering, I find that’s really hard. If it is an audience situation, I’m fine. Since I’m talking about my weaknesses, I may as well mention my strengths. I think I’m a really good speaker and I love that.
[A presidency] is not in my ambition. My contract as provost goes to 2013. I really do like lots of aspects of this job. It will be hard ultimately to go back to faculty. The pace will change.
I’ll just have more time for [my scholarship and writing]. And there are certain types of projects I can’t do here. Historians go to archives. I haven’t been to an archive in over a decade. I don’t have time for it. I send people, but I don’t have time to go myself. It will be interesting to see whether I want to go again. I used to do it all the time.
You have shown a lot of interest in global initiatives. Why?
I wasn’t required to add global activity to the provost’s job, but I have a deep personal interest in it—not just for me, but for the institution. Going global has been terrific for Mason. Fortunately, lots of people were interested in this. I’ve done more with it than I’ve had to; some will say I shouldn’t have spent so much time on it. I believe the global scope moves us forward. I think as an institution it allows us to fulfill some responsibilities that are really important to take up, particularly as a national capital location. I just have to note that is an aspect of the job that consumed a fair amount of time, and it was to some degree optional. I think it has been a smash success on the whole, despite the one failure in the Middle East.
The Ras al Khamaih Campus?
This is trite, but being willing to recognize when something is going wrong and trying to figure out what lessons are to be learned… any leadership position has to be open to that. There is a certain temptation in leadership to always emphasize the positive. I think it is important to be optimistic, but if you are blind to the fact that something hasn’t worked right and you had a role in the failure, then you aren’t leading well. There are contexts in which airing your linen doesn’t make sense, but you have to watch the temptation to always look on the bright side. And it is important. We have lots of things that aren’t working right.
What do you do for fun?
I like travel, particularly when my wife [Mason alumna and former associate vice president of budget and planning Donna Kidd, MPA ’94] comes along. I now have three grandchildren and probably will have more. None of them lives really close by, so we have to schedule visits, which is an important part of our annual calendar. Both my wife and I are avid gardeners. In fact, I have to do that later today. I’ve been away for nine days in China and Japan, and the weeds show it.
Editor’s note: This interview took 28 minutes exactly.