Outgoing provost leaves legacy at College

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April 3, 2009

2:08 AM

It’s an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon and outgoing College of William and Mary Provost Geoff Feiss is, as usual, decked out in a spiffy bowtie, a habit he picked up after coming to Williamsburg. Today the tie is yellow with blue lines, which form a square pattern.

He leans back in his chair, thinking for a moment, before saying, “As far as I’m concerned, I was supposed to be born in Colorado.”

Feiss, who is retiring from his position as provost at the College this summer, enjoys reminiscing about all things geologic. Geology is where the slender, softspoken man got his start in academia. Feiss studied the subject as an undergraduate at Princeton University before earning his doctorate from Harvard University in 1970. He spent the next 27 years lecturing about rocks and tectonic plates, first at Albion College in Michigan and later at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, before becoming a full-time administrator at the College.

Feiss feels a deep connection to the western part of the United States becaue his geology research was based there. His parents lived at a mining camp 11,000 feet above sea level during the 1930s; and he enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors. His mock resentment over not being born in Colorado — his sister was born in Denver; Feiss, in Cleveland — comes, he says, from the time they lived outside Washington, D.C. while his father served at the Pentagon during World War II.

“All through my childhood, all my parents could talk about was how wonderful Colorado was, how great it was to live up in the mountains, to ski, to snowshoe, how the snow came up to the second story windows, and I was looking around at Falls Church, Virginia., thinking, ‘Man, did I get screwed.’”

Like many geologists, Feiss has a rather dry sense of humor. He switched from teaching to administration while at UNC in 1992 after the dean asked him to head up budgeting and planning. He used the opportunity to increase the presence of the campus’s geology department, which was “a little bit on the fringes” and less likely to receive funding than the larger departments such as biology, chemistry or physics.

Feiss found that his new job was not as different as it had seemed from his old position.

“Every professor, even in the hard sciences — particularly in the hard sciences — you end up doing a lot of budgeting, a lot of planning. When I was a professor, I had to get money from the National Science Foundation, money from the private sector, to be able to keep my research program going, to fund my students,” he said. “In a way, you sort of find yourself doing administration.”

Ultimately, Feiss liked the job.

“It wasn’t just running spreadsheets; it was actually trying to wrap my head around arts and sciences. I enjoyed it.”

So in 1997, he applied for the position of Dean of Arts and Sciences at the College, and was named provost in 2003. Though the position of provost is highly powerful and influential — he is the only College administrator, aside from the president, to have his own nameplate at the Board of Visitors — Feiss’s duties are relatively unknown to students. The provost is the chief academic officer. Feiss oversees the faculty of the College, almost 600 across all schools and departments, as well as the class of employees known as “professional faculty,” librarians, information technology employees, the school’s counselors and more. He supervises all faculty-related issues including hiring, retention, promotion, tenure and salaries, manages the budgeting process, doling out resources to College departments, runs the admissions office, supervises the registrar, directs all research and even has oversight over the Muscarelle Museum of Art.

Because of his wide-ranging duties, “there is no typical day” for the provost. Feiss’s office is located in the Brafferton, the historic building that also houses the president’s office, which is directly above his own. The office is surprisingly organized for such a high position. His desk is orderly, his conference table is clear, and his bookcases are efficiently crammed with books written by faculty members. The silence of his office is broken only by the president’s footsteps on the hardwood floorboards above.

Despite his proximity to the president’s office, Feiss said he never had interest in the job itself.

“When [former College President] Tim [Sullivan] announced his retirement, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be president, that’s not me.’ I was just at that time two years into this job, and I didn’t see myself that way.”

That was in 2005. That same year, however, academic headhunters persuaded him to apply for the presidency at the University of Maine. Feiss, who was ultimately a finalist in the search, said he used that opportunity as his “ace-in-the-hole,” in case the next College president was looking for a new provost.

“I learned an enormous amount,” he said. “One of the things I learned is, you know, I’m not sure I want to be president. The nature of the presidency of a university has changed enormously in the last 30 years. The president is increasingly someone who deals with the external constituents, particularly in a public university.”

Fortunately, Feiss got along well with the next president of the College, Gene Nichol.

Politics, Feiss said, is not his strong suit. And the presidency is often about politics.

That statement could not have been more apt for Nichol, who after just three years had drawn enormous ire and disagreement over several political decisions. In February of 2008, Nichol resigned amid controversy after the BOV informed him they would not renew his contract.

“That was a very complex situation. There were a lot of moving parts in that one,” Feiss said. Although Nichol was caught up in several culture wars — the removal of the Wren cross, for instance — several of his more controversial choices involved academics. Many of Nichol’s critics said it was partly Feiss’s advice that ultimately doomed Nichol’s presidency.

“There’s no way that I, working closely with him, can say I didn’t have anything to do with all those issues. I did,” Feiss said. “I was very involved in the Gateway initiative, which was one of the initiatives that caused some initial difficulty.”

Gateway William and Mary, which Feiss said he “absolutely” supported starting, is intended to increase the College’s economic diversity by providing full scholarships to students who couldn’t otherwise afford a higher education. Critics, however, argued that it was not yet properly funded.
Feiss disagrees.

“We put the funding in place to do it. We knew we needed a funding plan to do it, and we put that funding plan in place. It’s very hard in a university to say, ‘Well, it’s going to take us four years to do something; we’re going to wait until we get all the money to front it.’”

Now, more than a year after Nichol’s resignation, Feiss said they remain close.

“I continue to count him as a close friend. I was very fond of Gene,” he said, noting he last saw Nichol during a visit to North Carolina in October. “We’ll always stay close friends. I share some values with him.”

Aside from the Nichol controversy, Feiss said he is proud of several accomplishments during his time at the College. He noted the founding of the neuroscience and the environmental science programs. They began during his watch as dean, along with a reformed faculty leave system and the Sharpe Community Scholars Program.

Most of all, however, Feiss is proud of the people he oversees.

“It’s the hardest thing to measure, but where I feel the proudest is in the quality of the faculty and staff that I have been able to assist in bringing and keeping at the College. My job, at the end of the day, is to build the best faculty and the best support for that faculty,” he said. “If you haven’t got great students, and you haven’t got a great faculty, then you’re not going to have a great university. I don’t care what your student center looks like or how big your football stadium is. None of that counts.”

Feiss’s tenure has not been easy, however. He noted that survival is an accomplishment in the face of funding problems.

“This is my third round of budget cuts, and the fact that we somehow as an institution continue to thrive and continue to be successful in hard times, that’s a kind of accomplishment, I guess.”

In fact, Feiss said his greatest challenge has been financing.

“This place hangs on by a thread sometimes, and I really wish that we could have found ways to really substantively increase the security of our funding base so that we’re not always working kind of hand to mouth,” he said. “There’s so many great things we could do, if we just had a little more security in the financial side.”

Feiss also fears that the College could lose sight of its core mission.

“The biggest mistake universities make is called ‘mission drift.’ They have a mission, and then they begin to try to do something else. You can change your mission, but don’t drift. Know what you’re doing.”

Feiss noted that the definition of liberal arts has changed in recent decades, due in part to greater opportunities for students.

“When I went to college, you went, you stayed four years, you left. [Now], people come, some people graduate in three, some people graduate in five, some people will spend two semesters abroad, some people spend all their time here. In my day you majored in one thing; now you major in two things with two minors. It’s just a much richer environment.”

Nevertheless, Feiss said the core values involved in the learning process should remain the same.

“I believe that learning takes place between two people around a desk, at a table, in a lab, in a studio, in the field. There will be ways — interesting, fascinating, undreamed of ways — that we can enhance how we learn and enhance how we create knowledge, but at the end of the day it’s always going to be the two of us or the
six of us or the twelve of us interacting in real time. I just believe that.”

Facing retirement, Feiss wryly noted that he will return to the “western” life denied him in his childhood.
Some 15 years ago, he purchased 35 acres in the Colorado Front Range, the populous area of Colorado near Denver. Along with his wife and sons, Feiss built an electricity-free cabin in the mountains that he and his family use as often as possible.

“We were much imbued with the idea of having a cabin in the west,” Feiss said. “We loved it, and so we decided when we retired we wanted to be close to the cabin.”

For permanent housing, Feiss plans to move into a house he owns just off the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Although he jokes about penning a memoir — “I’m not sure anybody wants to read the memoirs of a provost. Pretty narrow clientele” — Feiss is mulling over a few other possible books. He said he is working on one with his wife, Nancy West, about how geologists see the world, a book “intended for the lay person.”

He is also considering a biography of his father, who, besides working in a mining camp and the Pentagon, also explored Africa in the 1920s.

He may be moving out west, but Feiss said he plans on returning to the East Coast often.

“I have seven grandchildren spread out from Maine to Georgia that need to be played with. I have children in Atlanta, Raleigh, North Carolina, Baltimore and Brunswick, Maine. So my ideal is: I fly either to Atlanta or Portland, outstay my welcome with that set of children, then get on the train and come down the East Coast or come up the East Coast, then fly back to Denver.”

He said those trips will include a junket back to the Colonial capital, the place he has called home for the last decade.

Ever the optimist, Feiss couched his negative experiences as provost, especially his struggle with funding, in the positive qualities of the College.

“I have friends who are deans and provosts all over the country, and I can tell you that it sometimes shocks me that everybody tells me they envy my job, and they tell me I have the best job among provostships in America. So I’ll go to a meeting in a blue funk about money or this or that or the other thing, and people will say, ‘I’d give anything for your job.’ So it’s important, I think, for us to realize this is a very remarkable place. It’s got problems — everybody’s got problems — but the bones of this institution are so good. The people are so good.”

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