A provost is the senior academic administrator at many institutions of higher education in the United States and Canada and the equivalent of a deputy vice-chancellor at some institutions in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia. Additionally, the heads of certain colleges of universities in the UK and Ireland are called provosts; the term is, used in this sense, the equivalent of a Master or Principal (and various like terms) at other colleges.
The various deans of a university's schools, colleges, or faculties typically report to the provost, or jointly to them and the institution's chief executive officer—which office may be called president, chancellor, or rector. Likewise do the heads of the various interdisciplinary units and academic support functions (such as libraries, student services, the registrar, admissions, and information technology) usually report there. The provost, in turn, is responsible to the institution's chief executive officer and governing board or boards (variously called its trustees, the regents, the governors, or the corporation) for oversight of all educational affairs and activities, including research and academic personnel.
In many but not all North American institutions, the provost or equivalent is the second-ranking officer in the administrative hierarchy. Often the provost may serve as acting chief executive officer during a vacancy in that office or when the incumbent is absent from campus for prolonged periods. In these institutions, the title of provost is sometimes combined with those of senior vice president, executive vice president, executive vice chancellor, or the like, to denote that officer's high standing.
Provosts often receive staff support or delegate line responsibility for certain administrative functions to one or more subordinates variously called assistant provost, associate provost, vice provost, or deputy provost. The deputy provost is often the right-hand person of the provost who assumes the provost's responsibilities in the provost's absence.
Provosts are often chosen by a search committee made up of faculty members, and are almost always drawn from the 'tenured faculty' or 'professional administrators' with academic credentials, either at the institution or from other institutions.
At some North American research universities and liberal arts colleges, other titles may be used in place of or in combination with provost, such as chief academic officer (CAO) or vice president for academic affairs (or, rarely, academic vice-president, academic vice rector, or vice president for education). At smaller independent liberal arts colleges, the chief academic officer may carry the title "dean of the college" or "dean of the faculty" in addition to or instead of provost. For example, at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, the dean of the faculty is also the vice president for academic affairs and is the second-highest administrator, directly beneath the president.
State university systems in the United States are the state universities operated and funded primarily by the state government. (They may include multiple administratively independent campuses, or an integrated multi-campus state university.) In some state university systems, provost may be the title held by the head of a branch campus. For example, until recently the chancellors of the Newark and Camden campuses of Rutgers University in New Jersey were known as provosts.
Sometimes the chief academic officer or chief medical officer of a university medical center (also academic medical center) holds the title of provost.
In some universities, the chief administrative officer of a large academic division may be a provost. Finally, in some colleges and universities, the title of provost (and the function of deputy to the president or chancellor) may be separate from the function of chief academic officer.
Provost is the style of the heads of University College London; the Royal College of Art; Oriel, Queen's and Worcester Colleges at Oxford; King's College at Cambridge; Trinity College at Dublin; and St Leonard's College (University of St Andrews), as well as the deputy head of Imperial College London. The chairman of the governors of Eton College is also called a provost. There are also Provosts for the University of Reading Malaysia Campus.
The title "provost" (Latin: praepositus) was used in England in medieval times for the head of colleges such as Oriel College, Oxford and Eton College. In the context of local government, the title is even older; see civil provost.
The first use of the title in American and Canadian higher education is unclear. At the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, the title dates from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, respectively. At Penn, the administrative head of the university was titled provost until the 1930s, when the board of trustees created a separate office of president and re-designated the provost as chief academic officer and subordinate to the new position. At Columbia, the board of trustees established the office of provost in 1811, only to abolish it five years later. The Trustees and the president of the university re-established the office of provost in 1912. Although the precise title of the office has changed over time, its responsibility as Columbia's chief academic officer has remained constant.
Other North American universities and colleges created provosts as heads of academic affairs during and after World War II, when dramatic increases in undergraduate enrollments (due to the G.I. Bill) and the increased complexity of higher education administration led many chief executive officers to adopt a more corporate governing structure. By the 1960s, most of the other Ivy League institutions (Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, and Brown) had provosts (or equivalents), as did other private research universities such as the University of Chicago, Stanford University, Rice University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, Emory University, Wake Forest University and Duke University.
At Harvard University, the office of provost has had two distinct incarnations. The first was during World War II and the immediate postwar era. James Bryant Conant, the president of the university from 1933 to 1953, asked the Harvard Corporation (the more senior of the two governing boards) to create the office of provost in October 1945, at time when he (Conant) spent a great deal of time in Washington, D.C. as chairman of the National Defense Research Committee. A provision was created where the dean of the Faculty of Arts of Sciences (FAS) would concurrently serve as provost. Conant appointed historian Paul Herman Buck, in which capacity he had oversight of FAS (which includes Harvard College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Extension School, the Summer School, and what is now called the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences) and its affiliated laboratories, research centers, and museums. However, he had no authority over Harvard's professional schools (at that time, the Divinity School, the Law School, the Faculty of Medicine, the School of Public Health, and the Graduate Schools of Business Administration, Design, Education, and Public Administration).
That provost's office was eliminated when Conant retired from Harvard's presidency in 1953. During the presidencies of Nathan Marsh Pusey (1953–1971) and Derek C. Bok (1971–1993), the deans of Harvard's nine faculties reported directly to the president, with the dean of FAS being primus inter pares. The second incarnation began in 1993, when then Harvard President Neil Rudenstine asked the corporation to create the provostship as a second university-wide academic officer, reporting to its president.
A section of Harvard's 1997 Re-accreditation Report for the New England Commission of Colleges and Schools reads:
The Provost at Harvard acts as an extension of the President. He is the second academic officer, after the President, having purview of the entire University. The Provost has special responsibility for fostering intellectual interactions across the University, including the five Interfaculty Initiatives (environment, ethics and the professions, schooling and children, mind/brain/behavior, and health policy). The Provost also acts to help improve the quality and efficiency of central services organized at Harvard under the aegis of the Vice Presidents.