Ringing in a more perfect union: Provost Michael Halleran talks diversity, presidential search
Written by Emily Martell|
April 24, 2017
As College of William and Mary Provost Michael Halleran works from his high-ceilinged office in the Brafferton Friday, April 28, he will enjoy his favorite College tradition for the eighth time: the ringing of the Christopher Wren Building bell by seniors.
To Halleran, the activity is both individual and collective, representing both the student and the institution.
You’re ringing it individually, but I’m experiencing it all day long, so I like that,” Halleran said. “Also, I am told, that sound never fully disappears; it simply dissipates. And that somewhere out there, are the echoes of the bells that were once rung.”
“You’re ringing it individually, but I’m experiencing it all day long, so I like that,” Halleran said. “Also, I am told, that sound never fully disappears; it simply dissipates. And that somewhere out there, are the echoes of the bells that were once rung.”
Now with a tenure at the College twice the length of a conventional senior, Halleran has overseen the implementation of the William and Mary Promise, the expansion of eLearning, the creation of the Interdisciplinary Fellows Program, the establishment of the Confucius Institute, the increase in the joint degree programme with the University of St Andrews and most recently, the introduction of the COLL curriculum.
Although becoming an administrator wasn’t initially on Halleran’s horizon, being involved in academia was.
“I always assumed I wanted to teach,” Halleran said.
Taking beginners ancient Greek “on a lark” while an undergraduate at Kenyon College in Ohio, Halleran said he fell in love and simply kept going. Immediately after graduating, Halleran attended a master’s program and then a doctoral program at Harvard University, focusing his scholarship on the Greek and Roman classics.
Halleran taught for two years at Connecticut College, then moved to Seattle to the University of Washington, where he chaired the classics department and then became the divisional dean for the arts and humanities. In 2005, he, his wife and three sons moved to Miami, where Halleran assumed the role of dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami.
“I discovered … I was fairly good at administration — I had some aptitude — and I enjoyed dealing with people,” Halleran said. “As a professor, there are these intense periods of engagement when you’re teaching. You’ve gotta show up, and you’re talking to 10 students, 200 students, whatever the format is, but when you’re not teaching, it’s a fairly solitary life.”
Although he said he enjoyed teaching, Halleran also said he preferred the interpersonal nature of administrative work.
Halleran then became provost of the College in July 2009. Under his purview is the College of Arts and Sciences, the Mason School of Business, the School of Education, the Marshall-Wythe School of Law and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
“I have one constituent — it’s not the president, it’s not the rector, it’s the College of William and Mary,” Halleran said. “That’s the only constituent I have. That’s a very large, complex, highly variegated constituent, but my job is to advance the distinctive educational excellence of William and Mary. That’s what I try to do.”
Even as he thinks broadly about the College, Halleran said a big part of his job is making things possible for individuals. For this, Halleran said he has internalized advice from his father, who he said is an internist and a “really good diagnostician.”
When Halleran inquired about this skill, he said he recalled his father simply saying, “Oh it’s easy. You just have to listen, and people will tell you.”’
As an academic diagnostician, Halleran said he tries to figure out what peoples’ end goals are and find ways for them to attain them.
“A lot of constraints that we see are imagined constraints,” Halleran said. “There are always regulatory constraints, and there are budgetary constraints. Sure. There will always be constraints. But we also imagine more constraints than there really are, because of habit, and so part of what I try to do is to help individuals see beyond the imagined constraints.”
One group of individuals Halleran said he has helped eliminate constraints for are non-tenure-eligible faculty. Until five years ago, these individuals were restricted to the period specified by their contract. Now, NTEs can be promoted and have their stays extended.
Although some were concerned that this change would degrade the value of tenure, Halleran said that it improves working conditions for NTEs, potentially allows the College to get a better NTE applicant pool and improves the quality of education NTEs can provide.
Halleran identified two ongoing processes that will shape the College over the next several years: the diversification of faculty and the presidential search.
On the former, Halleran said that student diversification has been a notable success of years past, but faculty diversification has paled in comparison. The gap between the two, he continued, will remain a pressing issue, as he believes it will for nearly every university in the country.
Halleran recalled what he considers one of the three best speeches of former U.S. President Barack Obama: “A More Perfect Union,” delivered by the then-Senator during the contest for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
That’s what we’re trying to do here, is to build a more perfect union,” Halleran said.
“That’s what we’re trying to do here, is to build a more perfect union,” Halleran said.
On the latter, Halleran said that the College will want a president who is and can do everything, but there is no such person. Halleran said that he or she must appreciate what is done at the College, understand higher education, relate to everyone, be comfortable in his or her own skin and have a sense of humor. But, Halleran continued, nobody will have these attributes in equal measure.
Regardless, Halleran said he has full confidence that the College will have a great new president.
As for the spirit of his single constituent, Halleran said he finds it to be extremely agreeable — hard work is celebrated, learning is encouraged and students have the freedom to pursue their passions.
“I think of [the College] as a place with very few sharp elbows. I think most of the competition is not you against him or her, but it’s you against yourself, where there are schools that no, there are very sharp elbows,” Halleran said. “I don’t think we have many jerks on campus. … And studying, being smart, being intellectually inquisitive, those are all fine. You don’t have to hide that.”