The final days of the fall semester and the early part of the holiday break saw the resignations of two of our most visible and productive academic leaders. Ed Ayers, dean of the College and Graduate School since 2001, Buckner W. Clay Professor, and the Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History, will leave in mid-summer to become president of the University of Richmond. Gene Block, provost since 2001 and previously vice president for research and Alumni Council Thomas Jefferson Professor of Biology, will leave at about the same time to become chancellor of UCLA. Both will leave significant gaps to be filled by others. In addition to leading in the first phase of the South Lawn project and presiding over noteworthy innovations in the College’s curriculum, Dean Ayers has led the nation in adapting digital technologies to the needs of students and faculty members in the humanities and the social sciences. Mr. Block deserves credit for many accomplishments—new strategies to build strength in the sciences, our new relationship with Semester at Sea, and a long list of important advances in interdisciplinary programs. In addition, he has made the University an international center for the study of biological timing.
Finding successors and recruiting them are tasks of unusual importance in universities. The process of consultation with faculty members begins early. As we began to consider the search for a new College dean, I met with no fewer than 12 groups of faculty leaders, a total of 82 persons, during the semester break to seek advice. Each group was asked for three statements of advice: on the agenda to be followed in the first five years of the next dean’s tenure; on issues to be determined in the same period; and on issues for the longer term. Some of the advice provided is specific to certain departments or groups of departments. Other advice focuses on matters related to specific jobs within the College—to fund-raising, advising students, managing academic departments, and so on. Two different groups, one from the College and the other from the entire University, provided advice specifically on needs in the sciences. On January fourth, I wrote to the faculty to detail the issues involved in the search and to ask for advice and assistance. You can find the letter online at www.virginia.edu/president/spch/07/deansearch.html.
The process for identifying and recruiting the next provost differs somewhat because the position’s responsibilities are changing rapidly, and because we are involved in a multi-year succession-planning project under the direction of the Board of Visitors. The search for our next provost seems to be well in hand. The provost is the University’s chief academic officer—a vast, complex area of activity. The deans report on a daily basis to the provost. The provost oversees faculty employment, the curriculum, research, many diversity programs, and even our international centers. One issue to be resolved early in this search is how best to manage the many elements of this function during a period that will likely see Leonard Sandridge’s retirement in about three years and my own departure, somewhat later, from my current duties. Our chief-operating-officer structure, once a rarity in major universities, has increasingly become normative. Other universities have recognized as we did in the early 1990s the extent to which excellence now depends on capable and strategic investments of assets, and on systematic enablement by way of resources of the women and men who carry out the University’s fundamental mission of teaching. Advisers tell us that managing academic resources will be a major element of the next provost’s assignment, and that raising those resources will be almost equally important. We are looking for an academic leader with uncommon qualifications—excellence in scholarship and teaching, solid experience in raising money and in managing expenditures, skill as a consensus builder within the academic community combined with the street savvy to be effective with alumni, parents’ groups, elected officials, and the many other constituencies with whom this new leader will need to interact. The early advice on prospects and how best to engage them is encouraging. The Rector and other Board leaders are engaged in this effort because the provost staffs the Board’s Committee on Educational Policy.
The College poses somewhat similar issues, but in different contexts. Our College is one of the largest unitary liberal arts colleges in the US. It has grown considerably during the last 15 or so years in response to state enrollment requirements. State resources have not kept pace with this growth, and faculty members face uncommonly heavy workloads. The dean has become a significant figure in fundraising. Dean Ayers’ success in finding support for phase one of the South Lawn project represents the first major fundraising effort in the College’s history. At the same time, the College has gained considerable new financial independence, and with that new responsibilities for managing resources. The deanship is a complex assignment involving oversight of some 26 academic departments and other budget centers; management of the processes by which faculty members are recruited, evaluated, promoted or denied promotion, and compensated; and nurturing of students. The dean must also speak effectively to the largest single cohort of University alumni—more than 74,000 scattered across the U.S. and around the world. The job is larger than most college presidencies. As the College has grown stronger, the demands made on its leaders have grown to such an extent that the structure to support the next dean seems now to be almost as important a condition for success as the identity of Mr. Ayers’ eventual successor.
Both of these searches pose good challenges for us. They point us toward the larger succession issues that we will face during the next several years. They give sharp focus to the new responsibilities that came to us with the state’s restructuring legislation in 2005 and 2006. To the extent that we design these positions and their supporting structures wisely and with attention to what the University will be a decade from now, rather than on daily and local issues, we will build soundly for the University’s future. We have our work cut out for us. That’s good. Great leaders prepare the way for those who come after them. Messrs. Ayers and Block have done that well. The next several weeks will be exciting times.