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President's Message: SLU Names New Interim Provost

May 19, 2020

Dear Members of our Saint Louis University community, 

I write to inform you of my decision on the appointment of an interim provost.  

My Discernment Process 

With word of the early departure of our Dr. Chester Gillis, to return to his home in Wilmington, N.C., to spend more time there with his spouse, Marie, I actively sought the viewpoints of University leaders about a successor. I had conversations with the expanded ULC (a group of approximately 45 including deans, VPs, elected faculty leaders, elected staff leaders, elected student leaders and select others), the deans as a group, the Provost’s direct reports as a group, the executive committee of the Faculty Senate, and the president and president-elect of the Student Government Association. In addition to these discussions, I asked individuals to write me and indicate who they thought was best suited to step into the role and the reasoning behind their recommendation. I made it clear that this is a consequential hire at any time but especially in this time of unparalleled crisis, one that will likely consume us for much of the new academic year and perhaps well beyond. I also have welcomed the unsolicited insights offered by other members of our community. 

Certainly, we all want an interim provost who is competent and collaborative, and is imbued with a rich understanding of our Jesuit mission and values. We also want an interim provost who recognizes that our collective response to COVID-19 — now and for the foreseeable future — will require timely decisions with the best information available, even as we have far too many unanswered questions. This person will need to lead us to develop dynamic and creative solutions, and their urgent and nimble implementation. 

We want an interim provost who will actively seek counsel from numerous voices before making decisions about what is best for the University. We want an interim provost who truly understands and is passionate about the academy — one who knows the role and responsibilities of the highest academic office, and who will assume those responsibilities with sincere, humble and assured engagement. We also want an interim provost who has a deep appreciation for our Catholic, Jesuit mission, values and vision and how they shape our decision making, particularly in matters that affect the curriculum and the faculty.  

Over the past three weeks, I have reviewed the recommendations and viewpoints that have been presented to me. Many have written thoughtful and eloquent letters. I have read and reread each of them. I have also considered the list of pressing academic issues affected by COVID-19 that this person will oversee. The next year will be a difficult one where many critical decisions will be made. These decisions will set our trajectory for years to come. We need an interim provost who is a quick study and can grasp the fiscal intricacies of our complex university and the interplay between academic and financial decisions. A keen understanding of our complicated academic financials is a must. 

My Selection 

While many who wrote noted the strength of our entire team of deans and called out several of them individually, each of the groups I polled overwhelmingly recommend one person to serve as interim provost — Dr. Michael Lewis. After weighing all the opinions expressed to me, reflecting upon all that this job will require, and considering the many talented people who might serve I have selected Mike to be the interim provost as of July 1. He and Dr. Gillis will begin a period of transition this week. 

I did not know much about Dr. Lewis prior to my appointing him as acting provost in August of 2018. I soon learned that he is a talented administrator.  Mike served with distinction as acting provost until Dr. Gillis arrived in January 2019. Mike’s time as acting provost was marked by efforts to: 

Mike assisted with Chet’s transition to the interim provost role, prior to Chet naming him interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences for the 2019-2020 academic year. There, Mike worked with the College’s associate deans and department chairs to lead the College through a year that included meeting the teaching needs of our largest ever incoming freshman class, the approval of the new University Core, the beginning of the Academic Portfolio Review process, continued discussions on the best structure for the College, and the current COVID-19 crisis. He introduced the College to tools and data that sharpened their perspectives and better informed their decision-making. 

A member of the Chemistry faculty since 2004, Mike opened the door to the Dean’s office to all faculty, and listened intently to their joys, grievances, hopes and fears. Through those encounters, he built trust and understanding. Several wrote that Mike has brought the College closer, increased transparency and accountability, and improved morale. He invested in new faculty and retained faculty stars who were entertaining outside offers. The faculty’s regard for Mike’s leadership style proved its worth when he worked with his associate deans and department chairs to find ways to balance the College budget, and to deliver on financial commitments, while making sure Faculty Council leadership was kept informed and given opportunities to provide input. 

Prior to moving back into the Provost’s Office, Mike will select an interim dean of Arts and Sciences who will serve until a permanent dean is hired. In the weeks ahead, he will share more details with the members of the College of Arts and Sciences on how he intends to proceed with this decision.  

I welcome Mike’s return to DuBourg Hall. I hope you will do so as well. 

In the meantime, my heart and my prayers, like yours, remain with Chet and Marie Gillis. Chet has made great progress in a short time here at Saint Louis University — shorter than any of us would have liked. He has had a substantial impact on SLU, one that will be long lasting. We are indebted to him. Further, Chet and Maire have become good friends. While we will remain close friends, Fran and I will miss them here in St. Louis, as I know you will as well. 

Looking forward, we have much to do — together. I know the transition will be a smooth one and our work will continue apace. If we are to reopen campus to face-to-face instruction for fall semester, many decisions have to be made and much has to be accomplished. We are up to the challenges, as formidable as they may be. 

Thank you for your patience and understanding during the transition period, and thank you for your dedication and commitment to our University during this time of isolation and uncertainty. As I indicated in my message to the campus on Friday: 

Those who live through historical events are seldom aware of it in the moment. It is only years after the fact upon further reflection that we realize we were part of a once-in-a-generation event.  

When historians inquire how SLU responded to this pandemic, I hope that they will discover what I have witnessed in all of us — a community that, when faced with endless opportunities to turn inward and allow fear to consume us, chose a different path. We chose the path of kinship, generosity, and service. Upon hearing the boundless uncertainty, suffering, and moments of joy, they will see that we chose the path of responding with a resounding, “we feel that too.” 

They will not have to look long to understand the meaning of OneSLU. 

Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D.