Opinion | Staff Editorials

John Coatsworth must shape the role of Columbia's provost

John Coatsworth was appointed permanently to the office of the provost almost two months ago. As Spectator’s former editor in chief Samuel E. Roth and former managing editor Michele Cleary point out in yesterday’s lead story for The Eye ("The Black Box," April 12), he assumed the office after it had experienced nine years of what many faculty and former administrators consider a relative decline in influence. In a time of administrative transition, we hope to see Coatsworth expand the office of the provost and assert academic goals relevant to the faculty and students.

As Columbia’s chief academic officer, the provost takes part in all major administrative decisions alongside the University president and the senior executive vice president. While the three officers’ positions within the larger University framework are stable, the power dynamics of the three-part relationship remain fluid, and depend in large part on the individuls who occupy the office. The precise nature of many administrative decisions involving the three top offices is opaque, even to other administrators, but nominally, the provost and the senior executive vice president represent the often-clashing interests of academics and budgeting to the University president.

As we understand it, this relationship is most productive when the provost and senior executive vice president can clash while synthesizing both academic and non-academic interests dynamically. Disagreement is necessary, and the administrative structure calls for forceful and vocal individuals.

From the little information available, it seems that Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin fills that influential role promoting the University’s non-academic interests. But we, like the many faculty members and students, know few details about Kasdin’s particular job requirements—he is not responsible for academic affairs that are more immediately relevant to students and faculty, and as a result, is less visible to us.

Of more interest to us is the role of the provost. Having a strong provost is in the best interests of the faculty and students, ensuring that their concerns are taken into consideration by top administrators. Given the undefined and shifting roles of the president, provost, and senior executive vice president, there is huge potential for Coatsworth to shape his office in the coming years. We hope to see the office of the provost grow and to see a healthy relationship emerge between it and the office of the senior executive vice president.

This office’s growth will be most meaningful if Coatsworth engages with the faculty and students he must represent. Although his predecessor, Claude Steele, assumed the office directly after leaving Stanford, every other provost in the past 50 years had been appointed from within the Columbia faculty. Coatsworth was appointed from within Columbia’s ranks, but his time here has been relatively short and has mostly been spent as an administrator. He must make an effort to understand the culture of the Columbia faculty and interact with the students.

Coatsworth must know that faculty and students have little interest in the details of executive decision-making at Columbia, but do care enormously about issues such as Columbia’s academic quality and the campus expansion in Manhattanville. The two initiatives are intertwined, and choosing a priority from between the two does not have to be a zero-sum game. All the same, though, a strong provost should represent the interests of current faculty and students. As University President Lee Bollinger has prioritized Manhattanville as his administrative legacy, the provost has a responsibility to ensure that more immediate academic interests are not unduly burdened.

Coatsworth has enormous potential to transform the office of the provost in the next few years. While we have no reason to suspect that Bollinger or Kasdin wants anything but progress for the University’s academic goals, their offices—Kasdin’s especially—serve different roles. A strong administration demands a spirited provost who vocally represents academic interests. We hope Coatsworth will fill that role.

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