From Michael Mugmon's, "The Way It Is," Fall '98 From Michael Mugmon's, "The Way It Is," Fall '98Here at Penn, someone is missing. It's not really a professor, and it's not exactly a dean. It's not really a student or a staffer, but it's not just an administrator either. I only know that this person is absent. Very absent -- and has been for nine months. And the void might hurt Penn's academic mission more than you'd like to believe. So, who is missing here at the University of Pennsylvania? A permanent provost, that's who. On Halloween Day 1997, then-Provost Stanley Chodorow -- his hands full with a very public hunt for various university presidencies and wary of drawing attention away from more pressing issues -- announced his plans to exit the position he'd held since 1994. Little more than a month later, University President Judith Rodin tapped Deputy Provost Michael Wachter to fill in as interim provost. At the time, Rodin said she hoped to appoint Chodorow's permanent replacement by summer 1998. When Chodorow officially stepped down and returned to the History Department on January 1, Wachter -- a 29-year Penn veteran and a brilliant scholar of economics and the law -- began what he believed would be a "short term" in the interim spot. Rodin and Wachter's expectations for a quick transition seemed right on track when, just 11 days after Wachter took over as interim provost, Rodin selected a 15-member provost search committee. Consisting of 11 faculty members, two undergraduates and two graduate students, the committee would be charged with conducting a national search for top provost candidates based on vision, past performance, motivational and strategic techniques and a genuine affinity for academia. And as for whether or not the committee could select an internal candidate, Wharton School Dean and Committee Chairperson Thomas Gerrity said, "The committee will consider candidates from inside the University as well as from nationally recognized teaching and research universities across the country." All signs pointed toward an efficient process and the selection of a top-notch candidate by the administration-designated July 1 deadline. Jump to the present. October 1998. Summer has long since passed, and Chodorow has attempted to shed his "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" image by scoring a job at the helm of California Virtual University. Much more important, however, Rodin has yet to announce a provost candidate, revealing the fiction of Wachter's "short term." With Rodin and committee members mum on the closed process, the situation sadly resembles the painful search for a permanent dean of the School of Arts and Sciences after Rosemary Stevens resigned in September 1996. There again, administrators and the SAS dean search committee hoped to have a dean in place by July -- well in time for the start of the 1997-98 academic year. But the search dragged on past September for another full semester until Rodin named Sociology Professor Samuel Preston dean December 15. So far, so good with Preston. He has begun to revitalize SAS departments and faculty, and he just received an unrestricted $10 million donation. Faculty and students alike seem quite happy with him. But why wasn't Preston chosen sooner? Admittedly, he had reservations about accepting the job. Nonetheless, he was right under Rodin's nose, and it should never have taken 15 months to select him. Similarly, Wachter has performed his interim duties well, namely keeping things running smoothly and preparing for an easy transition. As interim provost, he has done solid work in the realm of distributed learning, made nice progress on the construction of Perelman Quadrangle and helped to keep the 21st Century Project -- Penn's broad initiative to focus on interdisciplinary study and to provide research opportunities to undergraduates -- moving along. Nonetheless, the "interim effect" paralyzes Wachter to an extent, and since the provost is considered the University's chief academic officer, such a freeze allows Penn to run the risk of becoming stagnant in terms of academics and broader projects. Instead of allowing Wachter and the University to push full speed ahead into new, exciting territory, the excessive wait forces Wachter simply to keep the ship steady. As college house mastermind David Brownlee said last fall, "You won't find the creation of new projects under an acting provost." Additionally, the fact that Wachter doesn't know for certain if he is a candidate for the permanent provostship somewhat immobilizes him, causing him to walk on occupational eggshells. If not, the committee needs to get rolling. If, however, a short list of excellent candidates exists, Rodin is the one who needs to get rolling, and she needs to make a choice sooner rather than later. In choosing Chodorow, the old provost search committee took a mere six months to select him as the top candidate. This time, the search has gone on too long. There is no way the committee hasn't already presented a list on which at least one candidate -- be it external or internal -- would be perfect for the job and willing to come to the University. Please, for the sake of Penn academics, find the missing permanent provost now.Comments powered by Disqus
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