The Provost Steps Down

By Norman Boucher / May/June 2011
May 6th, 2011

“The day I became provost and walked into this office,” David Kertzer ’69 says, “it was like walking into someone else’s life.”

Kertzer, the Paul Dupee Jr. University Professor of Social Science, has been an anthropologist and Italian studies specialist for more than thirty years. He is perhaps best known for The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which was a 1997 National Book Award finalist and the basis of a play by Pulitzer-winning playwright Alfred Uhry ’58. But Kertzer put aside his writing and research life in the spring of 2006, when President Ruth Simmons asked him to serve a five-year term as Brown’s provost. His time as chief academic officer ends in July, and, as proud as he is of his achievements as provost, he will be relieved to return to his research in the papal archives the Vatican opened only in 2006. Waiting for him on his computer, he says, are about 25,000 pages of archival documents and thousands of pages of notes.

Kertzer  may not have been the only one to feel he’d morphed into someone else on the dayt he became provost. He immediately noticed a change in his colleagues’ attitude toward him. “You’re all of a sudden regarded as an administrator who couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be a scholar and teacher,” he says. “That takes a lot of getting used to.”

That attitude became obvious when Kertzer squared off against some of his colleagues over the question of tenure, which was the thorniest issue he faced as provost. “The big issue at Brown,” he says, “is what kind of institution we should be. What are our aspirations?”

Simmons made clear from the outset of her presidency that Brown was underreaching, particularly in an age of rapid change and increasing globalization. “Unless you’re a major research university,” Kertzer says, “you are largely invisible outside the United States.”

On Kertzer’s watch, the administration, prompted by an outside review, set out to gain more control of tenure decisions, which at Brown has traditionally been left to individual departments. “Just because Brown aims so high to be one of the great universities in the country and the world,” he says, “the standards for tenure have to be very high, too. If they’re not, we’re not going to be one of the great universities in the world. It’s that simple.”

Kertzer realized that he would need to implement changes in the tenure process to allow more review of tenure decisions from outside individual departments. But more than that, he says, the University needed a cultural shift. He points to MIT, for example, where departments strive to be one of top five in their field. Decisions are based on whether or not the faculty member up for tenure will help achieve that goal.

“If not,” Kertzer says, “the person may be very, very good, but not good enough.”

Not surprisingly, Brown faculty members bristled at Kertzer’s move to increase review, and the process, in Kertzer’s words, became “painful and frustrating.” Faculty repeatedly rejected proposed reforms before approving some to go into effect in September.

Kertzer says his second biggest accomplishment was one he could not have anticipated. “One thing I didn’t bargain on when I agreed to do this,” he says, “was the economic crisis of 2008.” With the endowment losing $800 million, deep cuts had to be made throughout the budget. Kertzer, along with other members of the senior administration, guided those cuts to protect the University’s academic programs and the student experience.

Asked to describe his greatest frustration as provost, Kertzer chuckles. “At times the word that came most readily to my lips as provost was intractable,” he notes. “You do have a sense that some problems have been around for a long, long time and somehow you’re not going to solve them.”

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May/June 2011