Five Challenges of Today’s Provost

There have always been challenges facing higher education leaders. From remaining true to the school’s mission, vision and traditions to staying competitive with research, innovation and the latest academic offerings.

The role of the provost is ripe with challenges and opportunities; problems and solutions. Today, some of the most visible areas of concern include:

Diversity and Inclusion

In their annual 2017 survey of chief academic officers, higher education media company Inside Higher Education found that provosts realize the importance of diversity as part of the learning experience. If they were not previously aware, widespread student protests in 2015 brought this issue to the fore. Diversity expresses itself in two ways in this latest survey:

Faculty Diversity

Over half of provosts surveyed think that their college or university values diversity among faculty members. An even greater number, 62 percent, believe that hiring decisions should be refined to address the need for a more diverse teaching population. Yet only 24 percent have initiatives and hiring targets in place to increase minority representation among their ranks.

Diversity Curriculum

The majority (73 percent) agree that undergraduates should have a diversity course requirement as part of their studies. A deeper look shows that 63 percent of four-year colleges and universities already have this measure in place. When it comes to altering existing curriculum to address the concerns of a diverse student body, provosts are split. Only slightly over 40 percent agree that their coursework should be revised with a greater sensitivity to inclusion. 

Assessment and Institutional Effectiveness

Assessment is a particularly important trend as accrediting bodies increase their scrutiny of the higher education industry and students look for the best return on their college investment dollars. The amount of data available on today’s campuses creates an expectation that colleges and universities have the information they need to enhance performance.

Just over 50 percent of provosts believe assessment systems add value to the quality of their teaching, as well as to student outcomes. Technology improvements are also seen as a positive result of assessment activities, with 40 percent of provosts in agreement. The one big challenge to the process is the amount of time put in by provosts. A full 80 percent believe that assessments require a lot of extra work on their end.

After all, according to the Higher Education survey, two-thirds believe their school is already “very effective” in delivering a quality education. Of course, there is always room for improvement when you look at the efficacy of various aspects of that education. Areas where provosts can look to increase effectiveness include hiring faculty, controlling costs, assessing student outcomes, preparing students as global citizens, and leveraging analytics for data-driven decision making.

Contingent Faculty and Unions 

Much of today’s world relies on contingent and contracted talent to get the work done. Technology, engineering, finance, project management, and hourly labor sectors have realized contingent workers are an important part of an integrated workforce.

The higher education sector has not yet caught up to this “free agent” mentality, and continues to trust in the tenure system. Sixty percent of provosts believe the tenure system will remain in place for the foreseeable future. Yet, an equal number actually favor a long-term employment contract as a potential alternative.

Another trend for provosts to keep an eye on is the rise in the number of teaching assistants joining labor unions. The general consensus is that while unions can improve teaching assistant pay and working conditions, their overall influence is viewed unconvincingly – through a skeptical lens. 

Access and Affordability

According to the U.S. Department of Education, two-thirds of job opportunities will require post-secondary education by 2020. Meanwhile, the cost of that education continues to become less affordable for more people.

Even tuition at the traditionally less expensive state universities has doubled over past 30 years, leaving students saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Low-income families are priced out of a college education, with only 10 percent of family members earning a bachelor’s degree by the time they are age 25. In middle-income families, that number is 50 percent.

Government support for students remains in the budget for fiscal 2017, with a number of Obama-era programs encouraging reduced costs for enrollment, simplified loan applications, and special initiatives for low-income and minority students. It is unclear what the impact will be on these programs come fiscal 2018. 

Educational Innovation 

The traditional methods of engaging students in their coursework has changed drastically in recent years, with technology-enabled learning tools being a must. This includes systems that can be personalized to each student’s previous knowledge and pace of learning, with software that adapts to individual interactions with the subject matter. Not only can the technology support each student’s learning patterns, instructors can also gauge progress and intervene for one-on-one guidance in areas of weakness.

This type of data-driven classroom experience goes hand in hand with the demand for truly measurable student outcomes. Data can help to inform program enhancement by identifying new ways to deliver curriculum and better defining degree expectations. Properly used, analytics can ensure that the school – and its students – can feel confident about engaging in a valuable educational experience validated on graduation and post-graduation employment rates.

Taking on the role of provost is a noble endeavor. Knowing what lies ahead is an integral step to success on the job. If this is the path that you seek to follow, a Doctor of Education in Higher Education Leadership degree can help prepare you for all of these challenges and more. Learn more by visiting Maryville University online.


Findings from the 2017 Survey of College & University Chief Academic Officers

Department of Education, “College Affordability and Completion: Ensuring a Pathway to Opportunity”

Campus Technology, “7 Things Higher Education Innovators Want You to Know”

Be Brave

Bring us your ambition and we’ll guide you along a personalized path to a quality education that’s designed to change your life.