The Provost Talks About Brown's Future

December 12th, 2014

BAM I know the job description of provost, but every individual brings to the job something different. How is this job a match for your particular expertise and your particular goals?

Colvin Good question. So, I think for me, I do like the process of change and helping organizations change in a way that improves them. That’s something I enjoy, the intellectual challenge and also the sort of personal and communication challenges associated with that changing for the better. And I think from a provost you have a unique vantage point in the University, where you can see the undergraduate activities, what’s happening to the faculty, and what’s happening with the physical plant. So it’s a position in which you can solve problems and facilitate change a systems-level view. For me, it’s actually kind of fun when I can identify problems that are truly systems-level, where if I make simultaneous movements in three areas, you kind of optimize the University in a different way. That’s something that’s always appealed to me in administration: problems that are linked problems. That’s at a very sort of abstract level what I enjoy doing.

At Brown in particular Brown aspires to improve itself continuously in all ways, but particularly the focus now is on becoming more of a research university. That’s a type of change that’s going to involve a lot of systemic changes. It might involve broadening our view of who our students are, for example, expanding to include both younger and older people.

The other aspect of Brown that is certainly a really good fit for me an my history iis its aspirations to build its global research reputation through a really defined interdisciplinary strategy in which we would have steeples of excellence, where we would — where we have — selected topics and themes of global importance to align the faculty around. And that interdisciplinary research is something I’ve done my whole career. I know very well, how hard it is to do and the details you have to get right to make it very successful.

BAM You mention that it’s a time for change and for becoming more of a world class research university. When you say change at Brown, is that what you’re thinking about?

Colvin Brown is already globally recognized as one of the best places in the world to get an undergraduate education. Its open curriculum is its identity, in large part, to the world. It is already really strongly identified—I think correctly—with its emphasis on undergraduate education. So in that area we need to maintain and strengthen, because our competitors are getting better and better. But I don’t think that a substantial amount of change has to happen in that area because we’re already extraordinary.

I think that if you look at our global research footprint—and you can certainly find departments and programs that are exceptions—but overall we have more room to grow. So I think it is imperative that we protect the crown jewel of the University, which is our undergraduate program, and simultaneously set out to increase its global research reputation—I think Brown has been on this path for more than a decade already. The challenge is in how do you effect that change and still preserve the undergraduate educational experience we’re so known for? So that’s ultimately the true challenge of what we’re setting out to do.

BAM So assuming we’re successful in that, what does Brown look like 10 years from now?

Colvin Well, what it would look like is definitely a campus that would have 20 top-10 departments. It would have faculty in diverse areas who were globally recognized names, who were defining the absolute edges of the talent in that area. It would probably have a much larger graduate program than it does now. Its undergraduates would have richer and deeper opportunities for research, and it would definitely have a different plan.

To support that kind of growth requires that we tend to the campus and how we think about the campus—new building that helps people to collaborate and come together in that way. And certainly our structure would be that much more improved, everything from our libraries to our electron microscopes.

BAM So would the day-to-day life of the University look different?

Colvin Well it’s a good question. I wonder how different undeergraduates’ actual lives would be. I think that their faculty would be different in some ways. When you’re being taught by a scholar who is on the verge of winning a Nobel Prize, it’s a different experience than when you’re being taught by a scholar who is younger, for example, so they might experience lectures that are not necessarily transmitting the knowledge of the field as it was a hundred years ago but lectures that are anticipating and pushing the envelope.

I think the graduate student population would simply be larger to sustain a greater level of research activity, and I think that they would feel more a part of the campus, more a part of the life of the campus contributing to the research mission. And I think for sure our research infrastructure would be better.

I know that as a campus develops a deeper and broader research portfolio, all of the tools you need, whether you’re a humanist or whether you’re a chemist, those infrastructures increase. And they serve everybody, undergraduate students and graduate students alike, because it becomes easier to do research. It’s not like pulling teeth to get the basic scholarship completed, because the campus itself has been better situated to support that, and to renew and invest in those kinds of activities.

BAM One of the places of potential conflict in that model is that many Nobel Prize winners begrudge their teaching time.

Colvin Oh, I didn’t see that at all.


Colvin I was at Rice University when Rick Smalley won his Nobel Prize in chemistry and he taught chemists. I was at Stanford, where I was taught by Nobel laureates. I was at Berkeley and saw Nobel laureates in my chemistry lab. So that’s not my experience that—in fact it’s actually the opposite.

BAM Right.

Colvin I don’t think you find people who don’t want to teach. On the contrary, it can often energize them and pull them into the classroom because they want to teach a new way of thinking about their discipline, which is often what made them famous in the first place.

What I do think is true, and I think you’re right to question it, is that it is a little bit insane to say that we’re going keep the undergraduate experience identical and somehow we’re going do research. And that can somehow magically happen. We have to think very carefully about our faculty, about creating solutions to real problems. As faculty members do become more research active, they will have tougher travel dynamics. They will have to visit funding agencies, if they’re in science and engineering, and travel to international conferences. That is part of the parcel of developing a global research reputation. And that’s difficult to do with, for example, a semester-long class that’s 14 or 15 weeks.

So our peer institutions have gone toward shortened quarter systems in which they’ve devised more modular teaching. That way the faculty member can deeply engage for a shorter period of time and then free up time to travel. That’s more conducive to meeting the pressures of being one of the best scholars in your field in the 21st century. You’re going be traveling a lot. And so how do you mesh that with the undergraduate teaching?

But one thing I can say is that a lot of the faculty here at Brown are here because they love to teach and they love to be a part of those undergraduates. In fact, I’ve never been in a school where faculty members brag about how many students are in their classes. It’s sort of a badge of honor to say, “I have 140 students in Norse Mythology.” And I think that culture is very strong.

So I would anticipate we would only get faculty members choosing to come to Brown because they have a real interest in the undergraduate life and in teaching their discipline to that age group. The challenge will be in making time for it, whether that’s in sabbatical policies that are that give them more time, which is something humanists need, whether for scientists and engineers it’s the ability to teach in more modular ways so they can travel to all the things they need to travel to. But I think you have to look at the undergraduate world here and ask questions: what can we do that will enable our faculty to pursue that direction and still bring them to our undergraduates?

BAM As more research-oriented faculty are brought in, will that erode some of Brown’s undergraduate teaching excellence?

Colvin I don’t think it will. It is true that growing our research reputation will require new faculty, and new faculty who have research as one of their major ambitions, but I think that when you’re recruiting faculty to a place they come for a few reasons. First, they come because of their close collaborators, people with whom they can talk about their specific area, are nearby. Then they come because there’s a research infrastructure—physical libraries or facilities they need to help them shape their research. And perhaps a lot of it is the community of people around that will help facilitate their scholarship.

And that starts to get to what the University is and how we think of it as a community. What I do know about Brown is that it will always attract faculty who don’t want to run siloed, single-person operations but rather faculty who really want to build collaborative communities. That’s absolutely part of our strategy and it’s part of what Brown is.

And then the third sort of reason faculty choose a place—and this is where I think we’re not going fall into that trap—is the culture of the whole institution and what the institution values. Universities all have different feelings and different cultures and histories. And I think it’s pretty clear at Brown that there’s a strong culture of very eclectic and independent students, and a culture that respects the teaching of those students. I don’t think that someone would come here and expect to not teach, or to not be part of that. I think we’ll be able to get somebody to come to Brown instead of Yale because of the teaching, not in spite of it.

And so in my view we have to make sure we articulate that mission and its role in our institution in a way that will help us avoid that trap of bringing in kind of “the new Brown,” as I’ve heard it called, and have it be completely out of step with the old Brown. I think what you want are really outstanding scholars who can preserve all of this great tradition, even as they bring really unique approaches to undergraduate education that will push the institution to make the kinds of changes we need.

For example, to have classes where you have to be present for every lecture is going to make it very difficult. Can you imagine other ways to engage your students that don’t take away from their undergrad experience while allowing for that? So I think the devil’s in the details about things like how you structure the semester, how you imagine the classroom.

One of the other things that I think is going be helped by Brown’s focus on research is the recognition that what happens in the classroom is still important, but experiences outside of the classroom is increasingly important: experiential learning, such as internships independent research. Those are actually going to be more important.

What makes students have a great undergraduate experience are those small seminars with really spectacular scholars, the ability to work in some of the research labs, such as in neuroscience, here you’re working with someone who just won a major NIMH grant to solve the mysteries of Alzheimer’s—those are the outside-of-classroom experiences that I think are going be transformational for our students going forward. As we’ve seen, some of the changes in technology and the delivery of information make the in-classroom experience really different than it was 20 or 30 years ago. I think the focus on our research and scholarship activities are going be very harmonious with the direction of higher ed in the next 10 or 20 years.

BAM There was an article in the Boston Globe last week about sort of the declining federal support for research and the need to go after corporate and foundation support more and more. The writer quoted researchers from Harvard saying “I just spend so much of time now, going to talk to foundations and having to track down all this money.” Is Brown facing a similar situation and are we also going after more corporate and foundation money?

Colvin Brown’s research volume, like many, has declined in the last two years and it’s just now beginning to rebound. And yes, we will. I was the vice provost for research before I came here, so I’m familiar with these issues.

Yes, for Brown to stay competitive, science and engineering faculty especially will have to diversify their portfolios. Federal funding is flat. The competition in the last five years, has gotten notably different. Many, many programs have single-digit success rates.

What this means is that from a time-effectiveness, time-management point of view, you should go to corporate, foundation, and I would add international, to that list. So, yes, I anticipate we will increase our corporate engagement, which I think is actually good for everybody. It’s not just about bringing research dollars. It’s about internships for our students, having corporate leaders—hopefully alums—serve on our various advisory boards, judging projects that come out of our various programs. I think research is a natural outcome of really effective relationships with the corporate sector. And so I think we’re going take that kind of holistic approach to corporate engagement that would lead to deeper relationships that will improve a whole range of things, everything from advising all the way up to internships, and maybe even into sponsored research. So, yes, many institutions have increased drastically their percentages of sponsored research coming from corporations, and I expect we will, too.

BAM Do you know what the numbers are at Brown?

Colvin You know I think, and I can confirm this later, that they are at 5 percent now.

BAM Five percent corporate?

Colvin Five percent corporate, and I’ll confirm. MIT just became the high-water mark at well over 20 percent. Only a few years ago they were at 10. Stanford is well over 20 percent now, too. So if you look at the global research universities that we may aspire to be, the trend is toward much more corporate funding. Foundation support is very similar. It’s a little bit less effective for us because foundations don’t return overhead to the institution, so from a financial point of view it’s not great, but for faculty it’s great. I would expect a stronger push in that direction. And then international is a really interesting area as well, where partnerships with universities overseas can sometimes take graduate students or faculties into other types of arrangements. We may want to explore those as they come. It takes a lot to invest in those relationships.

BAM Given this inevitable changing of the research formula, will it change the kinds of research that’s done?

Colvin Yes. So the biggest impact it’s had on my areas of science and engineering is that it’s actually been much, much harder to do fundamental science. You have to be, the phrase I like to use is “use-driven research.” That can be a little bit sad, I think. I chose science as a career many years ago because it was curiosity-driven, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that there’s a lot of things to be curious about in the world. So I’ve found a way to take that interest in fundamental since and intersect that with a problem. Actually the term for it is called “Pasteur’s quadrant,” and there’s a really great book about it. It’s called Use-Driven Research, where you do fundamental research, but you’re mindful of how it might be applied.

I think that’s one of the really hard transitions for a lot of scientists to make: accepting the challenges of federal funding people saying, “Well, how’s it going help me, what’s it going mean?” And to say, “Well just wait, in 50 years I’m sure we’ll know why it matters” is an answer hat I don’t think works as well as it did. So we have to be more mindful of in articulating the outcomes of our research. And I think that’s probably the biggest change I’ve seen in science and engineering.

BAM I think that would be more difficult for some departments than others—physics or pure math, say.

Colvin Actually they’re fine. Here at Brown our math department is phenomenal. And it has a math institute that’s computationally focused, so we’re able through partnerships with other departments to make it more applied. I also think that because of these changes in funding communities of scholars are creating new sets of expectations about what applied work has to look like. I think these are really exciting times to be in science. We’re not at the end of a Cold War, when we ere funding science because of fear. We’re funding our research now in the hopes of making the world a better place, and that means we have to actually connect to the world’s problems.

BAM Some of which seem so intractable.

Colvin Well, and one of the things I reasons I came to Brown, was because I think a lot of those global problems are not problems we can solve with the single bullet of technology. Look at energy, or food, or water: they are in part technology problems, but they’re also social problems and economic problems and political problems. I’m not the generation that’s going do this, but I’m very hopeful that Brown might be the kind of place where we see these cross-disciplinary teams form to attack these problems, where technology and sciences really work in a very directed way with humanists and social scientists to go after these large problems. It would be actually quite novel to have a breath of that. We can already sort of see prototypes of it in the institutes that have developed here, and I think that’s actually one of the most exciting things about Brown, is we might be able to wield these teams and processes. So those are things I’m really excited for.

BAM How do you balance rewarding multidisciplinary work and preserving the fundamental academic departmentt?

Colvin I believe the fundamental disciplinary department has to be preserved because of my own experiences in interdisciplinary sciences. It’s never been more important for me to be a chemist than it is in a room with physicists and engineers (laughs). So I think you can do both. It’s a negotiation. It’s like many really good things about how we govern ourselves. We set up one principle that values disciplines and another that says we’re going solve really hard problems in teams. And in terms of institutional resources, we make sure that both pinciples work together to find common ground. And if we only do it in disciplinary work or if we only do department work, we miss that. So there are ways to incentivize those two axes, so to speak, to work together. You get the best outcome when you both have a really strong interdisciplinary team going after a really important problem that the departments are also aligned with. When those two things are aligned, you’re doing, very fundamentally rigorous work that is also very socially relevant. And so I believe that as a provost you make sure we set up our incentive structures so that it’s hard for an interdisciplinary institute or a department to function completely alone, particularly if they want to grow.

BAM Any surprises when you came to Brown?

Colvin No, it’s been more or less what I’ve expected, and actually, you know, the faculty have been really pleasant, they’ve been great. Very thoughtful, nobody’s too angry, everybody’s here to help make the place better.

BAM They just all want more money.

Colvin Yeah, it would be nice to have more money.

Interview by BAM Editor and Publisher Norman Boucher.


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November/December 2014