Quick: name the provost of the last college you attended.
It’s okay if you can’t come up with a name. Few people can. In fact, you might not even have a particularly clear idea of what the provost is.
Provosts generally only wind up in the news if something goes wrong. They are second fiddle in most universities behind the president or chancellor. The provost does the hard work of monitoring curricula, managing admissions, dealing with faculty and student complaints, and otherwise keeping the school on track.
Often described as a school’s Chief Academic Officer, the provost can be seen as a kind of academic operations chief in counterpoint to the chancellor’s chief executive role. Since universities are primarily about academics, you can see where that puts the provost in the level of priorities and importance among senior college administrators.
But most college students don’t know much about the provost and many faculty members may not have a very clear picture of the job either.
Provost Definition: What Is a College Provost?
Colleges are all about free thinking and creativity, so it’s to be expected that there are plenty of differences in the ways that the provost role is defined at different schools.
In some schools, the top academic role may not even be called a provost—instead, provost duties might fall to a position called vice president, academic director, or vice chancellor.
In general, however, a provost will occupy a senior academic role, above college deans but below the chancellor. There may be a number of vice provosts at large colleges, each with a specific portfolio to manage. Areas might include:
At the top, though, the provost brings together all of the different departments of academic responsibility under one leader, and reports to the chancellor or president of the college. The chancellor has many more concerns than academics, such as facilities, sports, finance, human resources, and technology systems.
A provost has none of those distractions of managing supporting functions and can instead focus on the matters that are most important to scholarship and learning.
Provosts do, however, frequently serve as the second-in-command of universities, so they may be called on to step into the top spot to make decisions when necessary. In some cases they may act as the primary administrator running a branch campus of a large university system.
In their role as the head of academic portfolios, the provost leads planning processes and sets policies and guidance for subordinate deans. The provost manages and evaluates deans and vice provosts, and may oversee other academic HR processes for the college. They may be the one to give the final review and approval for tenure decisions.
They are also responsible for putting the final stamp of approval on budgetary requests and major capital projects.
Provosts have input on almost all other functional areas of the college, even those they aren’t responsible for. That can mean sitting on committees ranging from tuition to financial aid to information technology.
Essentially, provosts are the final seal of approval on the academic standards and quality of the school. It’s a role that has a lot to do with the overall reputation and success of any university.
Cultivating a Skillset To Become an Effective Modern Higher Education Leader
Anyone who has ever spent a significant amount of time working with college-level academics can spot the hardest part of a provost’s job right away: getting all that high-level intellectual firepower lined up and moving in the same direction on any particular policy.
The free-thinking and intensely critical world of academia relies of argument and liberal acceptance of diverse perspectives to drive new breakthroughs and innovations. When it comes to administrative processes, however, it’s not always such a boon.
So above all, provosts need the gravity and interpersonal relationship-building skills necessary to bring consensus in such an environment. Strong problem-solving and fast-thinking don’t hurt, either.
As leaders in an ever-changing academic environment, provosts also have to keep up with current events in higher education and plan and prepare to deal with the latest issues. Funding hiccups, state legislation regarding permissible class subjects, controversial opinions expressed by a subordinate, and all kinds of other trends can derail a school’s academic excellence if the provost isn’t ahead of the game.
The provost also has to stay abreast of new scholastic standards, fields of learning, and instructional techniques that the school may need to adopt to remain up-to-date and competitive. Unlike public K-12 schools, no college has a built-in student base—attracting applicants and keeping the school close to the cutting-edge will always be on the provost’s agenda.
What Is the Best Degree for Becoming a College Provost?
It’s quite rare for a provost to hold anything less than a doctoral degree, although some smaller colleges may only technically require a master’s.
Although provosts may ascend to the role from almost any field or discipline, those who are serious about pursuing the role will typically begin to specifically study educational leadership and administration at an advanced level. After all, these are not jobs you just fall into—for most people in educational leadership, they represent the culmination of a long and arduous path that will take you through lower level administrative positions along the way.
So your journey may begin with a Master’s of Science in Educational Administration, or a Master of Education in Educational Leadership. These will also serve to qualify you for lower rungs on the postsecondary educational administration ladder.
At some point, however, you will want to earn something in the way of a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Higher Education Leadership, or a PhD in Educational Leadership and Organizational Development in Post-Secondary Education.
The EdD is an applied degree that is well-suited to the kind of active management skills that provosts put to use every day. A PhD is more research and academically oriented, but that may also have its benefits when working in a university setting.
Either way, these degrees represent the pinnacle of expertise available to higher education administration. They develop skills that you’ll need to become an effective provost.
A Curriculum To Build Your Leadership Skills and Educational Knowledge
Educational leadership programs don’t just stack the box with important information from the latest research in pedagogy and instructional techniques. They offer both the knowledge and the skill-building you need to develop genuine leadership, even in such a hard-to-lead environment as the typical college.
That happens through coursework in areas such as:
As you’re well aware, doctoral programs also come with dissertation or capstone projects that serve as a synthesis of all your study and research. These projects can take half or more of your total time pursuing the degree, and they are the first thing that hiring or promotion committees are going to look at when they pick up your CV.
That’s because you have a lot of leeway in selecting the topics involved and pursuing your own groundbreaking theories in educational leadership. That can put you at the forefront of modern thinking in college administration, and that’s exactly what your next employer is likely to be looking for.
College Provost Salary – How Much Do University Provosts Make?
Like most other college-level leadership positions, provost jobs are not well-defined or distinctive enough to end up with their own special BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) categories. You may, at least, end up with your own dedicated parking space, though, so that’s nothing to sneeze at.
BLS does not track salary levels specifically for provosts. But as a group, they fall into the category of postsecondary educational administrators. It’s possible to take a look at the salaries there and make some educated guesses where many provosts will end up on the pay scale.
The median salary for postsecondary administrators for 2021 was $96,910 per year. A provost is pretty far from the median in terms of education, experience, and skill level, however. It’s far more likely that you will find these positions, near the top of the org chart, in the upper ten percent of salaries for postsecondary administrators.
In 2021, that would put them up in the rarified air of $190,770 or above.
So although the role isn’t widely known, it can certainly be lucrative. It’s also one of the clearest steppingstones to becoming a university chancellor, the top job where the big calls are made.
But most provosts are quite happy in their positions. It’s a role where a lot of the basic business of scholarship gets done at a university. If you have a love of learning and academics, then despite the tough road to getting there, earning the degree and getting the experience to become a provost is well worth the effort.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Postsecondary Education Administrators reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.