Feature: Meet the Provost
If you’re like many students, you may wonder why it took 157 nominations, 28 applicants and over a year of searching for the provost search committee to recommend Cheryl Brandsen, currently the academic dean for social sciences and contextual disciplines, to be the next provost. You may even wonder where a provost fits in the organization of the college, or what a provost does.
What is a provost?
The position of provost, according to the job description posted by the search committee is, in many ways, “the second-in-command” to the president.
Mark Williams, academic dean for arts, languages and education, clarified that while “at Calvin, we prefer the old-fashioned terms” such as provost, the position is also understood as “vice president of academic affairs,” or “the chief academic officer of the college.”
Under President Le Roy, the provost serves alongside four other vice presidents who oversee student life, enrollment, advancement and finance and administration. Because the mission of Calvin College is academic, however, the provost’s responsibilities are particularly significant to the life of the college.
What does a provost do?
The provost is in charge of hiring and overseeing Calvin’s faculty of over 290 professors, as well as setting the course for the college’s approach to faith and academics. Her office also oversees all academic decisions for the college, from approving course curriculum to scheduling class papers and tests.
When the campus was closed for a rare snow day at the beginning of Interim, for example, it was ultimately Provost Beversluis who made the call.
“A good image of the provost is that of a rowing team,” suggested Heidi Rienstra, executive assistant for the office of the provost. “The captain of the team is the president, but maybe the provost is the coxswain, the one calling out the strokes.”
Within the provost’s office, three professors serve as academic deans, each supervising 1/3 of faculty and departments. Stanley Haan, dean for natural sciences and mathematics, says he oversees “the day-to-day and week-to-week while the provost sees the bigger picture.”
Matthew Walhout, dean for research and scholarship, agreed. “The provost has to see the big picture and explain it to everyone who has an interest in it.
Brandsen’s Journey to Provost
Through her experience as an academic dean and serving on several committees, Cheryl Brandsen has already worked with Calvin administration for years.
“Dr. Brandsen knows Calvin College very well, and she already knows it at an operational level,” said Walhout. “She has a compelling vision for the integration of faith and learning as well as a compelling understanding of and compassion for issues of diversity.”
Brandsen graduated from Calvin, and after receiving her master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan, she returned to help start Calvin’s accredited social work program. After completing her Ph.D. at Michigan State University, she first taught and eventually chaired Calvin’s sociology department. In 2008, she was promoted to dean over the social sciences and contextual disciplines, including sociology, religion, history and philosophy.
“These were not things I aspired to do,” said Brandsen. “I would have been perfectly happy to be a social worker for the rest of my life. But there were people along the way who kept saying ‘I think you’d be good at this.’”
With the encouragement of her peers, Brandsen was one of the 28 applicants for the provost position. In an email announcing her nomination, President Le Roy wrote, “I have not seen a more competitive pool for a senior leadership position in the eight executive-level searches I have witnessed.”
In the end, however, it was Brandsen who stood out. “In my experience working with her,” Le Roy continued, “I have observed her ability to build consensus with faculty, collaborate well across divisional lines, balance careful deliberation with decisiveness and communicate with clarity and conviction.”
Walhout, who also served on the search committee, affirmed this. “She’s proven herself as someone who is very good at addressing problems and consulting the right people to make helpful policy changes,” he said.
“If I have a goofy idea or something, the first person I go to talk with is Cheryl,” said Haan. “She’ll be able to spot problems or things I may have overlooked. She’s really quite wise.”
Kristen Admiraal, Calvin’s social work program director, was a student when she first met Brandsen. As a professor, Admiraal said she “was just amazing in her attention to detail. She was very prepared and very engaging.”
As a dean, Admiraal said, “Even in challenging situations, she’s able to exhibit generosity and kindness….She genuinely cares about the direction Calvin is going in and approaches challenges in an open and appropriate way.”
Provost: Looking Forward
Brandsen already has a clear vision for Calvin’s next few years. “I want to make sure that the things we’re doing well we continue to do well,” she said, but also referred to “putting the house in order.”
“There are a number of things we’re doing that could be strengthened,” said Brandsen, especially the commitment to being “strong and vibrant in Calvin’s reformed theological tradition.”
Brandsen also foresees “important conversations about identity” such as, “Are we going to continue to be primarily an undergraduate liberal arts college? And what does that mean?”
Throughout this, she wants students to feel they are engaged at every level of their education. “Students want to be known,” she said, “and we want to know students.”
Directing students to the new feedback form or to faculty members in their departments, Brandsen added, “When the academic experience is working well, it would be good to know; and if it’s not, it would be good to know about that too.”
“I’d like to say my door is always open to students,” she said, “and we’ll see how that works.”
Brandsen will succeed the current provost, Claudia Beversluis, on July 1, 2014, pending approval by the Calvin College Board of Trustees and ratification by the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s Synod.