The Shoo-In Provost

By Norman Boucher / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007
Few faculty members were surprised when Interim Provost and Dean of the Faculty Kathryn Spoehr '69 was officially named the University's provost and its latest executive vice president on November 2. Spoehr's promotion was the widely expected outcome of an internal search for President E. Gordon Gee's second-in-command and the head of the University's academic departments, centers, and institutes.

Long known as a strong advocate of interdisciplinary research, Spoehr's appointment signals a stepping-up of Brown's commitment to adapt its cross-disciplinary undergraduate approach to the graduate school. "Agenda item number one," Spoehr confirms, "is the graduate school."

The difficulty will be shoring up the graduate school without compromising the undergraduate college. "I regard every penny we invest in the graduate school," Spoehr says, "as an investment in undergraduate education as well."

Spoehr inherits the touchy task of completing a year-old outside review of all the University's academic departments, a process that is expected to take another two years to complete. Unlike conventional academic reviews, this one has been evaluating departments in related clusters. This unorthodox approach, Spoehr says, "gives us the advantage of allowing us to review individual programs while also allowing us to look for interdisciplinary opportunities."

One likely result of this "cluster-review process" will be the eventual phasing out of some graduate programs and the reconfiguring of others to ease collaboration among related disciplines. One early model for such collaboration is the recently created brain-science initiative (see "Brain Trust," Elms, September/October), which brings together about eighty faculty members from ten departments to examine the workings of the human brain.

"What we're finding at the graduate level," Spoehr observes, "is that graduate students are more employable when, in addition to having their one academic specialty, they have enough breadth to go to another liberal arts college, or another university, and teach a wider range of courses or interact with a wider range of faculty. In both academia and industry, for example, condensed-matter physicists very often are more employable if they've had experience in materials sciences."

Spoehr, a former chair of the cognitive and linguistic sciences department that she helped found in 1986, joined the University's faculty a year after earning a Ph.D. from Stanford in 1973. Early in her Brown career, Spoehr says, she tried to downplay her undergraduate connection. "I didn't want people to think the only reason I was valued around here was that I happened to have an undergraduate degree from the place," she says.

In fact, Spoehr's long tenure at Brown and her popularity among faculty should help allay the suspicions of many professors who wonder why the University wants to modify academic departments at a time when the admission office is able to be more selective than ever.

Spoehr counters with the argument that graduate-school reform will further improve Brown's academic reputation while preparing it for the changing world outside the Van Wickle gates.

"There is nothing," she says, "that ensures the quality of the faculty, the quality of the libraries and research facilities, or the opportunities for undergraduate research as much as making sure we have quality graduate programs."

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January / February 2000