Peter N. Stearns, who is 78, will retire this summer as provost of George Mason University, after more than 14 years in the role. A social historian, he has taught and has written books for five decades. Here is his story, as told to Karin Fischer.
I started this job old, and I have not gotten younger. It was difficult to say at what point it seemed logical to retire, but I have been provost at George Mason a long time. I’ll go back to teaching next year. I have no full-retirement plans.
This semester I have a graduate course on world history. I’ve taught at least one course a semester all the way through. I like to teach and didn’t want to give it up entirely. You don’t see students very often in the provost’s job, so the opportunity to interact with what, after all, is our basic purpose was appealing. And continuing to teach while serving as provost was a useful way to maintain some trust credentials with faculty and to indicate my own deep belief that faculty need every encouragement to take the teaching mission seriously.
My advice to other provosts? Make sure you maintain appropriate contacts with faculty. Even though the faculty will regard you as an administrator and not quite one of them, make sure you stay deeply in touch with basic academic values.
The characteristic faculty member today is no longer just someone who is tenured. That is one of the current frontiers for provosts, making sure the various faculty types are fairly treated, trying to improve their mutual interaction, and recognizing that the differentiation of roles among the types is a complexity that most of us in higher education did not grow up with.
For any provost at any public university that I’m aware of, the most obvious challenge has been the significant disinvestment in public funding, the conversion of higher education from a public good to a private good. We’ve survived despite that—in some ways we’ve flourished. But I think that the trend is most unfortunate and disturbing.
In recent years, we also have been challenged by increasingly articulate criticisms of higher education, some of which I think are well worth considering and some of which are off the mark. When I started, higher education was riding high, in terms, at least, of public perception.
Over the last three or four years, I’ve maintained a regular blog, in which I try to be reasonably candid. Periodically I’ve tried to address some of the criticisms, indicating the areas where I think they’re inaccurate but also areas where I think we need to pay greater attention. I’m not personally sympathetic to the extreme disruptive claims. I actually think they can be counterproductive. But the broader notion that higher education needs to reconsider some of its established practices, I accept that. And I think we’re somewhat forced to do it by, if nothing else, the budget constraints.
One of the reasons I’ve loved doing this job is that the variety of issues one gets to deal with is absolutely fascinating. There are days that are really bad, when the problems seem overwhelming. But you get to deal with so many different disciplines, so many types of issues, and so many levels of engagement. I’ve found it a consistently fascinating job, and, in many ways, I will deeply miss it.