Sept. 2, 2008

Interim Provost Harris muses on his new 'trickle up' job

Just what Cornell's provost does is something of a mystery to most people. That was certainly the case with David Harris when he first arrived at Cornell from the University of Michigan in 2003 as professor of sociology and received a call from then Vice Provost Walter Cohen.

"I had little idea what the provost did," Harris recalls. "I came here to do my research, not to be an administrator. I received word that Walter wanted to see me. My first reaction was: What does a vice provost do? What could he want with me?" It emerged that Cohen wanted to discuss starting the Institute for the Social Sciences.

Harris went on not only to direct the institute, but also to become a vice provost, a deputy provost and now to serve as interim provost, a position he assumed Sept. 1 after Biddy Martin's departure for the chancellor's office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Harris, 39, and his wife, Anne, have two young daughters. He has cited his desire to stay engaged with his family as the principal reason why he decided not to become a candidate for the permanent provost position, even though he has been deputy provost since 2007, charged with handling such areas as diversity, the social sciences, and admissions and financial aid.

This experience has prepared Harris to hit the ground running during the search process. Harris will play no formal role in the search. Only internal candidates are being considered, and the Cornell community has been asked to put names in nomination for the post.

He will have a lot of running to do and ground to cover. "Everything on the academic side of this campus eventually reports to the provost," he says. "Everything trickles up: Departments are housed in colleges, which are led by deans, and deans report to the provost."

Then there are fiscal responsibilities: Cornell's provost is also chief operating officer and has budget authority for all aspects of Cornell that do not report to the provost for medical affairs. For Harris, this will mean grappling with such questions as: "What are we doing with our approximately $2 billion budget? Where will we put resources? What will the pool for salary increases be? How much will tuition change?" Priority number one, he says, is Cornell's $4 billion capital campaign.

Onto the provost's very full plate fall myriad issues, including faculty recruitment and retention, strategic use and allocation of resources, and the decline in state and federal aid. Other front-burner initiatives the provost's office is working on: the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, the Cornell Council for the Arts and the Energy Recovery Linac.

"The provost sets the academic priorities for the university, but he or she doesn't set them in isolation," Harris says, noting that the provost's staff remains in constant contact with vice presidents, deans and departments. Trying to keep current with everything going on at Cornell is one of the provost's biggest challenges, Harris says, and it's essential to do so because the provost's office plans, allocates resources and identifies synergies on an ever-changing chessboard.

"Part of what's fun about being an administrator is that it's extremely stimulating intellectually," Harris says. "Just last weekend, we had critical conversations about what Cornell is doing in the new life sciences. You learn a great deal from these conversations and from reading, and it's really exciting. You get reports that require you to think not in some narrow, bureaucratic way, but to think about things on an intellectual level. It's challenging to try to figure out how we can achieve our goals."

A typical example of the provost office's high-level coordination and identification of opportunities is occurring now in the field of economics. "We're working on how to pull together our strength in economics from across the university as well as make key hires to enhance what we have," Harris says. "The provost is in a position to bring all that together at Cornell, to make sure that it has coherence. We can really bring together opportunities across the colleges. We try to see when an [academic] area is coming together, where we have a comparative advantage and great faculty."

Above all, Harris notes, Cornell's provost is not a dictator. "Universities are not like corporations," he says. "We don't decree. With academic freedom, faculties have autonomy in what they study and teach. My job as interim provost will be to try to have a sense of everything that's going on out there and to know what's occurring nationally and internationally. And you don't do that on your own. Vice provosts, faculty and deans send you reports and ideas, and you start to get a sense of what's possible, married with funding opportunities."

One of Harris' goals for his term as interim provost is transparency. "I hope people will say, 'Even if I don't agree with what he did, I can see the logic of it.' That's critical. That's how I like to do business."