The University Record, October 11, 1999

Collaboration is key part of style, aim for three provosts

By Theresa Maddix

“We don’t want institutions to just look different but to behave differently,” was a theme Provost Nancy Cantor and the provosts from Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of Illinois, Chicago, stressed, Oct. 6 in their presentation on “The Future of the Research University.”

In a talk informally billed, “The Three Provosts,” Cantor, Lou Anna Simon of MSU, and Elizabeth Hoffman of Chicago shared three similar and yet distinct positions on what it means to have women in the role of provost. After initial presentations, they took questions from the audience. Regent Rebecca McGowan moderated, and Graduate School Dean Earl Lewis provided opening remarks.

Cantor noted one immediate difference that a woman brings to the role of provost —“Women love to think with each other in conversations.”

Citing the U-M’s “institutional identity as a great public research university,” she said there is a historical imperative to “have a central permeability of boundaries,” and to not be cloistered. Inherent in that permeability is the need to be “inclusive and wide-ranging, both in who we are and what we study.”

These imperatives, Cantor said, put pressure on us as we go through change. The U-M is in “a constant tug-of-war between preserving a sense of who we are on one hand and the need to be flexible, permeable and inclusive on the other hand.”

The way to “weather the pressures,” Cantor said, citing examples from women’s sports and from women in computer science, “is to learn from the inclusivity, not to force every new participant to play by the same old rules.”

Of Title IX, which has produced an enormous shift in women’s participation in sports, Cantor said, “We need to worry that we may have opened the gates, but we may have not taken into account the lessons to be learned about how we as institutions structure the lives of student athletes.” Women athletes do not have the same deep associations with sports as men, Cantor’s research has shown. Women are much more likely to have other activities and relationships separate from their sports teams.

Studies by Carnegie Mellon show women entering the computer science field have very similar answers to men when describing themselves. They see themselves as math/science people and have a high confidence level. Women’s reasons for studying computer science, however, are very different, such as “to be able to write a program that would actually help, not programming for the sake of programming.”

After entering computer science programs, however, nearly 20 percent of the women felt a significant erosion of confidence, saying such things as “I don’t dream in code like they do.”

These examples, Cantor said, illustrate “a disjunction between an increased participation but increased discomfort with the culture one is entering. The norms and rules of the game need to change.”

Simon posed a series of questions focused on “working for a common good.” Michigan State, she said, was founded because of a general public dissatisfaction with the institutions of the time. Its goal as a land-grant university was to be for the common good. “If society were to create a new university in 2005,” she asked the audience, “what kind of university would it create?”

Simon defined inclusiveness a bit differently than Cantor. At MSU, inclusiveness is “not simply picking winners but creating winners,” being known “not for who it chose but for what it will do with the students it has chosen.”

Stating that “a knowledge age is upon us,” Simon asked what this knowledge age means in terms of our responsibilities to society.

“Will we, if we are to reinvent this university in 2005, reinvent some of the sense of citizenship in the academy for the common good? Is there opportunity in that for a genuine women’s-led agenda?”

She also asked the audience to consider what is meant by “public domain.” Most of the discoveries of land-grant universities, such as hybrid plants used to feed millions of people, were given freely for use in the public domain. Now universities, in order to stay financially viable, focus on “intellectual property and how much they’re going to get out of discoveries.”

“We all believe in collaboration,” Simon said, “but do we really? Is collaboration ‘what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours could be ours if I could only structure the right collaboration?’”

How women think about leadership and management can help us learn to collaborate, Simon said. Success in joint ventures comes not “in pushing what you want but knowing what the other person wants.” In a collaboration, she said, you gain something you wouldn’t otherwise have, and by gaining something new, everyone wins.

Hoffman focused on the issue of whether there is a glass ceiling for women in higher education.

“Simply by the sheer numbers of women who are going to come up through the ranks, we will change the academy.” Today, she said, for the first time, there are hundreds of women provosts. The next wave coming through will be women presidents and chancellors. “This is an incredibly wonderful time in history for women in higher education,” she said.

When she came to higher administration, Hoffman said, she did not expect to approach it differently than her male predecessors but found that she did.

One difference she talked about was collaboration. She said three successive male bosses initially saw her as indecisive and even talked to her about making strong decisions. They saw her style of asking everyone’s opinion before coming to a decision as strange and suspect. After she made her first major decision in each job, their doubts were removed. They saw that once she made a decision, she was firm and did not look back.

Hoffman wondered how many men with similar leadership styles were not promoted in the past for their “lack of decisiveness.” She said that now, not just her style but “a diversity of leadership styles may become more accepted.

“We are going to see a fundamental change in academic administration. Women of my generation and older are already poised to change the academy.”