July 19, 2004

Earl Lewis learning his way around


By Michael Terrazas

Over the next nine months, Earl Lewis will help direct a comprehensive self-examination and "career plan" for an institution he's now called home for all of 19 days. Some might be daunted by such a task--especially if they'd never done anything quite like it--but Emory's new provost and executive vice president for academic affairs shrugs, gives an easy laugh and welcomes the challenge.

"As [Emory College Senior Associate Dean] Rosemary Magee said to me yesterday, 'For a new provost, what a perfect introduction to a university,'" said Lewis, feet planted firmly on the sunny side of his role as steering committee co-chair for Emory's strategic planning proces.

As the strategic planning is significantly a "bottom up" exercise--assessments and goal-setting begin at the University's grassroots levels and percolate up toward formalization--Lewis is in many respects a perfect choice to lead it (along with fellow co-chair Michael Johns, executive vice president for health affairs); he brings a fresh and more objective judgment. And, as Magee suggested, there could be no better way to familiarize the new provost with the University whose academic excellence he's expected to bolster.

"Suddenly you have these environmental assessments from the various schools and colleges and major programs, and you get a closehand look at the institution in dramatic and quick fashion," Lewis said. ""I am prepared to absorb all of the information--faults, goals, aspirations; the hardest part is placing the names and people mentioned in their proper contexts."  

Learning his way around both names and places has been a top priority for Lewis since he took office July 1. Named in March as Emory's first permanent provost since the departure of Rebecca Chopp in June 2001, Lewis has been consulting with President Jim Wagner and other administrators in the months since, but now the former dean of the University of Michigan's graduate school is here full time--and dealing with the attendant headaches of moving such as ironing out the cable TV and Internet situation at home.

Though he hasn't finished moving into his fourth-floor office in the Administration Building, Lewis' plans--and calendar--are anything but bare. In addition to his strategic planning duties, and between introductory meetings with deans and professors and center directors and a host of other people, Lewis is thinking about issues of diversity and internationalization on campus, and he is beginning to plan for a 2005-06 review of Emory's doctoral programs by the National Research Council (NRC).

The latter issue will figure prominently in the University's continuing efforts to advance its position among the elite of U.S. research universities, for which Lewis said the NRC evaluation is a "gold standard." In several ways more in-depth than an accreditation review, the evaluation will enable not only faculty but also some graduate students to assess their own programs and productivity.

"You'll have a multiplicity of data to come up with an overall assessment of all our graduate programs in 60-some fields," said Lewis, who sat on a committee that helped design the methodology for the NRC study. "The stakes are pretty considerable, and they're even more so for a relatively young research university like Emory."

Trained as a historian, Lewis knows about multiple data points. Their value in making important decisions is one of the lessons he has carried with him to administration from his work as a scholar. Secondly, he keeps in mind the fact that much of his job entails dealing with personnel--human beings, with human strengths and human weaknesses. Finally (and perhaps related to this last point), Lewis said he always tries to appreciate the humor in life.

"You have to maintain a real good sense of humor to do this job day in and day out, because without the ability to laugh at yourself and others, you can lose your way," he said. "I've found laughter is much better than screaming."

Another way Emory's new provost will maintain balance is by finding time to continue his scholarship. Not this year and possibly not during 2005-06, but Lewis, who has faculty appointments in history and African American studies, will return to the classroom. He also has four book projects in various stages of development. "There is some unknowing graduate student on campus who one day will get a call from me," he quipped.

Indeed, staying in tune with faculty pressures and concerns will help him do his job as provost better, Lewis said.

"I know what it means to publish a book; I know what it means to have junior faculty members come to campus and to work with them; I know about academic publishing and the squeeze it's in right now," he said. "While I'm sitting at my desk looking at a promotion and tenure file--and that file looks differently than it might have 15 years ago--I do so aware of the broader context, as someone who not only reads about it but is immersed in it."

"We have brought in a capable and proven leader of national stature with a passion for edcuation, and we should celebrate that," said Wagner, adding that Lewis' arrival means he can take off the "provost hat" he's had to wear much of the last year. "Earl is even-keeled and thoughtful and a wonderful judge of character. We're going to see that he has an unusual gift for matching people and personalities with the tasks at hand."