In 1984, after Earl Lewis earned his Ph.D. in African American
history from the University of Minnesota, he had several options.
One was the University of California–Berkeley, which had
offered him a faculty position, as had a lesser known school in
Atlanta called Emory. Lewis chose Berkeley.
Fast-forward 20 years, and Lewis will end up at Emory after all—but not
as an assistant professor. On March 3, Lewis was confirmed by the Board of Trustees
as Emory’s first African American provost and executive vice president
for academic affairs, making him the highest ranking African American administrator
in University history and the first permanent holder of the position since the
departure of Rebecca Chopp in June 2001.
Currently dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and vice provost
for academic affairs/graduate studies at the University of Michigan, Lewis will
arrive July 1. He admitted that, when he first was approached about the position,
his perceptions of Emory were two decades old and he was not immediately intrigued.
“What has changed in the intervening several months is that I have a fresher
perspective on Emory, both where it is at the moment and where it aspires to
be over the course of the next few years,” Lewis said. “And that’s
Exciting not only for Lewis but also for the dean who suggested his candidacy,
for the search advisory committee that interviewed him and for the president
who nominated him.
“Any successful candidate for the job of provost at Emory must have had
extensive executive experience in the higher reaches of academic administration
at an institution whose practices we admire and respect, as well as a wide and
deep understanding of a vast array of university-related issues far beyond those
related to his or her immediate academic specialty or area of administrative
service,” said Emory College Dean Bobby Paul, who came to know Lewis while
serving as dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and suggested his
name to the Provost Search Advisory Committee, of which Paul was a member.
“Earl Lewis more than satisfies these criteria,” Paul continued, “and
I am very excited about the prospect of working with him on issues pertaining
to the college and to undergraduate education, as well as on many broader University
matters of concern to us all.”
“Believe me, when you’ve read piles of dossiers, met and discussed
them in detail, and then sat for hours interviewing candidate after candidate,
you know immediately when you’ve got a live one,” said committee
member Martine Watson Brownley, Goodrich C. White Professor of English. “The
caliber of Dean Lewis’ questions and comments showed not only that he knew
the kind of University we are but, equally importantly, that he understood the
kind of institution we want to be.”
President Jim Wagner, whose passion for Emory Lewis credited with helping change
his attitude during the recruitment process, said he enthusiastically nominated
the Michigan graduate dean to become Emory’s chief academic officer.
“Owing to his experience in academic administration, his roots in the humanities
and his particular experience in graduate education, Earl will bring a rich portfolio
of capabilities that will be a strong complement to those already part of Emory’s
leadership team,” Wagner said.
Also Elsa Barkley Brown and Robin D.G. Kelley Collegiate Professor of History
and African American and African Studies at Michigan, Lewis earned his B.A. in
history and psychology magna cum laude from Concordia College (Moorhead, Minn.)
in 1978. He went on to earn his master’s from the University of Minnesota
in 1981 and then his doctorate three years later.
Lewis joined the Michigan faculty in 1989 and the next year became director of
the school’s Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. He’s served
as dean of the Rackham School since 1997 and became vice provost in 1998. Not
bad work for someone who never thought he would end up in administration.
“When I left Berkeley to come to Michigan, it was not with the intent of
being engaged in academic administration at all, and within a short year I found
myself directing a center,” Lewis said. “On a couple occasions I’ve
assumed that I would leave that role and return to the faculty completely; it’s
only been in the last couple years that I have thought about the possibility
of becoming a provost.”
Part of administration’s appeal, Lewis said, is its relatively quick payoffs,
as opposed to the life of a scholar—which he also loves, but professors
invariably wait months or even years for articles and books to be published.
“With administration, you can make a decision—in some cases within
a 12-hour period—that has consequences for students, faculty and others,” Lewis
said. “There’s this sense that an individual, working either alone
or in tandem, can make an immediate difference for other people and their lives
and needs. That’s very rewarding.”
Lewis has his work cut out for him as he arrives at the start of a new era for
Emory, with an almost complete turnover of senior administration and a strategic
planning process and comprehensive campaign in the near future, not to mention
other administrative responsibilities.
“I was somewhat familiar [with last semester’s racial language incident]
before the announcement, and I’ve become more familiar,” Lewis said. “In
my view, creating a diverse living and learning environment is hard work because
you have to do it over and over and over again. So am I surprised that sometimes,
while engaging in that hard work, people say things they wish they had never
said, get their feelings hurt, their egos bruised? Not at all.
“In fact,” he continued, “what it does do is provide an individual
campus the opportunity to look at itself and ask, what are its core values? How
do we make sure we do not in any way injure those core values while recognizing
that, if we bring in people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives,
they too will ask that the institution change?”