University Provost

Peter E. Nathan, PhD
University of Iowa

While I'm not certain that my career has been any more interesting than those of most other psychologists, I've enjoyed it immensely. It has proven sufficiently interesting to maintain my motivation and has rarely become routine or predictable. What's helped make my career interesting, I think, is that I have quite intentionally sought to become involved in as many diverse academic activities as I could manage. I've been a clinician in a medical school, doing assessment and treatment in the psychiatry service of a large urban general hospital.

I've been a faculty member of a psychology department, responsible for directing a PhD program in clinical psychology while also teaching in that program, maintaining an active research program, and providing students clinical and research supervision. I've been responsible for a major academic research center employing more than 60 faculty drawn from a number of diverse disciplines. I've been a research administrator at one of the nation's largest private foundations, where I helped organize and run a set of mental health-related research programs involving prominent researchers from universities around the country. And I've been a full-time academic administrator, serving as provost and, later, acting president of a Big Ten university.

While serving in these full-time positions, I maintained a private practice in clinical psychology; consulted to many organizations on an array of topics and issues; was a board member and/or officer of many professional psychology organizations, public service groups, and state and federal agencies; and served as an editorial board member and/or editor of a diverse array of journals in psychology and substance abuse.

Why such a diverse career? The easy answer is that I am easily bored and need constantly to have something different to look forward to. The more nuanced answer is that I have always wanted to make a difference in whatever I've done and, as opportunities to do so came along, I've taken them and tried to make that difference.

Beyond the satisfaction I've found in teaching, research and writing, the usual pursuits of the full time academic psychologist, I've long been intrigued by the interpersonal and organizational complexities of higher education administration. That fascination led me a decade ago to shed the part-time administrative hat that I'd worn through all but the earliest days of my academic career in order to take on one of the most challenging administrative jobs in all of academia, that of university provost, a position I subsequently held at the University of Iowa for five and a half years.

Unlike the earlier, more focused administrative positions I'd held, the job of provost is perhaps the broadest and most diverse in the university. At Iowa, I was responsible for close to a dozen collegiate deans and, through them, a faculty of 2000. Through the dean of students, I was also responsible for about 27,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students. Collegiate budgets, curricula and planning; budgets, planning and execution of student services' activities; faculty hiring and promotion decisions; decanal hiring, supervision and evaluation; all these and many more were the responsibility of the provost. Perhaps most interesting about the position was the necessity to learn far more than I could ever have anticipated about disciplines as far removed from psychology as, for example, hospital pharmacy, finance and marketing, international law and oral surgery. The differences in the values, history, subject matter, criteria for faculty evaluation, preferred methods of teaching and prospects were enthralling to someone long captivated by the details, even the minutiae, of higher education.

The greatest downside of the provost's position was that it was never possible to return home for the evening or on the weekend without being burdened by four or five unsettled issues which had defied resolution somewhere farther down the academic chain of command. In that job, one doesn't have the luxury of leaving a problem unresolved, so I had to make a decision, often based on incomplete or inadequate information, and hope for the best. I was also dismayed to discover how venal, small-minded and vexing some of my faculty colleagues could be. Given my love of academia and my respect for academics, it hurt to find that some of my colleagues took advantage of the system, discriminated or harassed other colleagues or students, were dishonest in reporting their research findings, or otherwise chose to test the limits of a system that prides itself on flexibility and capacity for self-governance.

Ultimately, I decided that I preferred the continuing fascination of learning and teaching inherent in the professorate and, so that's how I plan to spend the rest of my career.

(Originally published in the May/June 2000 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)