By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP
We hope that those of you who are pursuing college admissions and financial aid have been doing some serious research about every college that interests you, and about college life in general. If so, you might have encountered some professional titles with which you are unfamiliar. If not, you almost certainly will after you are actually enrolled. What, exactly, is a provost? What is a dean? How is a dean different from a department head or a vice president? What differentiates a professor from an associate professor, an assistant professor, or an adjunct professor? What is the difference between a president and a chancellor? Depending on the size of the school you attend, its structure may be very simple or bewilderingly complex for the newcomer.
It is especially important to know who these people are if one of them warns you, threatens you, or summons you. Or gives you an award. Sometimes that can happen too.
Our list is not exhaustive, and we ask you to remember that local variations are abundant, but here is our primer on college officialdom, American-style:
The president is the chief executive officer of the institution. He or she is in charge of the whole show–its operations, overall direction, and strategic planning. Fundraising and relations with governmental entities are important components of the job. College presidents usually hold earned doctorates and have a background in college teaching, but sometimes they are recruited from business and industry or political life. We know of one small private college that fell on hard times and hired a former state budget director as its president, apparently on the grounds that he was accustomed to dealing with messy situations and doing a lot with a little. It didn’t work.
Owing to their involvement in fundraising and politics, college presidents often are spoken of as Machiavels who have sold their souls and their institutions to the devil. They catch flak if they try to please everyone, but they also are abominated if they don’t. It is not a suitable job for the fainthearted. For a comical view, we recommend Randall Jarrell’s priceless (and only) novel, Pictures from an Institution, which numbers among its characters a distinguished professor whose fondest wish is to be the pet of benignant creatures from another planet.
The definition of “chancellor” is somewhat variable. In most cases the chancellor is the overall head of a university system comprising multiple institutions, each of which is overseen by a president. In some systems, however, the titles are reversed, with the president heading the system and chancellors in charge of its constituent schools. A few institutions simply use the title of chancellor instead of president. Others may bestow the title on a retiring president or other dignitary in a figurehead or ceremonial role.
Some universities, especially larger ones, may have one or more vice presidents. The University of Georgia, for example, has a senior vice president and nine vice presidents who supervise various aspects of administration including finance, alumni relations, governmental relations, marketing, research, and information technology. Vice presidents typically report directly to the president and constitute a cabinet.
When I was a child, my parents were friendly with the senior vice president of a large public university who unfortunately was sometimes described as the president’s hatchet man. In my estimation he was a splendid fellow who told great basketball stories and drove a well-maintained old black Mercedes with tail fins. His wife was a psychology professor, and their house fairly pulsated with intellect. I thought he was the coolest middle-aged man on earth, though some of the aboriginal artifacts on the walls of his house did make me wonder about the hatchet part. His boss, by the way, was a deeply principled former navy chaplain with a special talent for quieting student unrest. Perhaps they had a good-cop-bad-cop act going.
A provost is usually the de jure or de facto second-in-command of the institution and often holds the title of vice president in addition to that of provost. He or she is the chief academic officer. In schools with both an academic vice president and a provost, the former tends to be the overseer of a particular academic vision, the leader of the campus intellectual community, while the provost is more of an administrator who tries to achieve and maintain smooth operations.
A dean is the head of a division or school or college within the university, such as the school of arts and sciences or the school of business or the school of nursing, or of an administrative division such as admissions. Seldom is an institution of significant size not divided in this manner. The dean may continue to serve as a professor within a certain department in his or her division. Many schools have a dean of faculty who represents the teachers’ interests in university matters, and a large percentage have a dean of students to oversee student welfare matters–and discipline. Once upon a time, it was common, even usual, for co-ed institutions to have deans responsible strictly for the interests and concerns of female students, but deans of women are rare today.
Department heads/chairmen/chairwomen/chairpersons lead the groups of teachers within particular subject areas. Within a college of arts and sciences, for example, there will be departments of mathematics, English, history, etc., each headed by a professor who serves as the link between the university administration and the other teachers in his or her department.
Though personnel policies vary widely from place to place, generally an assistant professorship is the entry-level position among full-time faculty. Depending on the requirements of a particular institution, the assistant professor may be promoted to the mid-level position of associate professor by fulfilling performance criteria related to teaching and research. A full professorship is the next step up. Many teachers remain at associate level indefinitely, but those who cannot advance from the assistant professor level usually are terminated.
All of the above roles are referred to as “tenure track” positions. Tenure, simply put, is job security offered to teachers who have proven themselves over a period of several years–requirements vary–and who therefore are not to be dismissed except “for cause” or owing to such exigencies as the discontinuation of a program. For example, I knew one professor who wrote a controversial book at an inopportune time and kept his job, while his colleague who became romantically involved with an undergraduate was dismissed by the university–and by his wife. I don’t know whether he and his inamorata stayed together, but they remained an item the entire time she was my next-door neighbor.
Depending on the institution, getting tenure and keeping it may depend in part on the quantity of research and writing performed by the individual, a requirement known quaintly as “publish or perish.” Many professors of high standing–especially the famous ones–are reputed to neglect their teaching duties and their students in favor of their publishing interests. We have seen this done, but we also have seen some of the world’s great intellectuals teach conscientiously while publishing frequently.
Ostensibly the purpose of tenure is to prevent teachers from being persecuted for voicing controversial ideas, or to shield them from economic pressure to say and write only what is popular and thus commercially attractive. Its critics charge that it promotes complacency and mediocrity and a failure to understand real-world conditions. We’ll leave it to you to decide who’s right.
Adjunct professors are not on the tenure track and normally are employed on a course-by-course basis without benefits. The recent trend is for colleges to depend increasingly on adjuncts in order to save money that they can then spend on big-name teachers, lavish facilities, and administrative salaries–and on recruiting applicants for admission. See our article, An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs so Much, September 6, 2018.
Many lower-level courses and labs are taught by graduate students, often referred to as teaching assistants (TA), some of whom have the title of instructor. There are many other titles among people who teach one thing or another in this circumstance or that, some of lowly stature and some highly exalted, but we’ve given you the basics.
The registrar heads the office that maintains student records. This is where your college transcripts originate. The registrar, as the title implies, oversees the registration process, enforces the regulations for adding or dropping classes, and keeps track of graduation requirements.
The board of trustees, known at some schools as regents or visitors or by some other title, are essentially a committee of appointees who are not employed by the university but who oversee the budget, help set the overall direction, and make key appointments. For example, my father served on a board that handled matters as diverse as minority hiring initiatives, funding a new high-rise classroom building, obtaining a new football coach, and dealing with angry hippies. (Their leader eventually joined the Mormons, but not soon enough to suit Dad.) Board members usually are appointed from the ranks of distinguished alumni and can be a pretty diverse lot. They most often come from business and the professions, but one of our favorite appointments is that of Country Music Hall of Famer Randy Owen, who has a degree in English from Jacksonville State and now serves on the board there.
Some multi-campus systems have one board that oversees all of their constituent institutions, while others have a separate board for each. Most states have a board of regents for oversight of all public institutions of higher learning within their boundaries.
The bursar is a financial administrator with oversight of student accounts. In short, this is the office you deal with in paying your bills. We left that one until last…
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Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter, he has taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level. He has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.
Culp, Paul. “An Arm and a Leg and Your First-Born Child: Why College Costs So Much,” The Coaching Educator, 6 September 2018.
Maghroori, Ray, and Charles Powers. “Vice President vs. Provost,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 August 2007.