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Academic-in-Chief

Provost Mike Lewis puts listening at the heart of leadership in a time of change.

SLU Provost Mike Lewis stands before a green wall.

Lewis Photo by Steve Dolan

For those who don't work in academia — or who graduated from Saint Louis University before the 1990s — the title of provost might be unfamiliar. Even researching the word might not help, since Webster’s New World Dictionary offers several definitions, including “the chief magistrate of a Scottish burgh” and “a jailer.”

Though a university provost leads and maintains order, those definitions don’t quite hit the mark. However, the definition listed last in Webster’s does: “in certain American universities, an administrative official dealing chiefly with faculty, curriculum, etc.” At SLU, the provost is integral to the University’s operations, serving as the chief academic officer and overseeing the entire educational enterprise.

SLU named its first provost in 1989; its current provost, Dr. Mike Lewis, was appointed in February 2021. And though Lewis may be relatively new to the job, he is not new to the University. He joined the SLU faculty in 2004 as an assistant professor of chemistry. Along the way, he found his calling in administration by serving in several executive positions, including as associate provost, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and interim provost.

Lewis, who hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia, didn’t start his studies dreaming of being a provost one day. He wanted to teach chemistry. He got his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Missouri-Columbia, which led to postdoctoral research in Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Next came SLU, where he has spent nearly 18 years.

In this interview with Universitas, Lewis shares what drew him to SLU, what he’s learned along the way and his plans for the future. 

UTAS: What attracted you to SLU? And what has kept you here?

LEWIS: As associate provost and now as provost, I’ve been involved in new faculty orientation for close to 10 years. And one of the things I say to the new faculty during orientation is that I came to SLU in large part for the same reasons they came here: I needed a job, and this was a very attractive one. I wanted to work at a place that offered a balance between research and teaching. That was important to me, and this was a place where it clearly seemed like I could pursue both of those.

When I got here, I very quickly took to the mission, but that’s something I grew to understand and experience after I arrived. And so, though I came for the research and teaching, I’m here nearly 18 years later because of how much the mission has resonated with me. I truly believe in the mission and appreciate how much it
impacts so many people.

As a chemist and professor, what motivated you to make that leap from the classroom to the administration?

There was never any one thing. It was a progression. I had a history with teaching centers going back to Mizzou. These are places where I always felt at home. So, during my first week on this campus, I sought out SLU’s Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. I began working with the center around
faculty-focused topics such as progression toward tenure and innovative teaching. I became a faculty fellow at the Reinert Center, and I enjoyed it.

Then when Dr. Ellen Harshman became the interim provost, she noted that we did not have an associate provost overseeing faculty affairs and faculty development. So, she started looking for someone. Somebody
put my name forward. That was back in 2013, and the rest is history.

You’ve held many administrative positions — associate provost, acting provost, interim dean. What did you learn in those roles that prepared you for today? And what made you want the provost job permanently?

All of those roles, to varying degrees, prepare you for this work. They offered different responsibilities for managing people, hearing their concerns and learning to listen really well — learning to help people find their own desires in the positions that they hold.

As associate provost for all those years, I got a University-wide perspective on the impact of all that we do in teaching, research and service. But even as associate provost, there isn’t always a lot of agency to affect change. Yet, I had seen potential, so being provost is the job I wanted.

...it's rewarding to have the agency to impact change and move the University in a direction that I think the community wants to go to put us in a stronger place." 

Provost Mike Lewis

I’d always had my own opinions. I thought there were things we could do that would have an impact. And I wanted the opportunity to have that level of impact.

In previous roles you dealt mostly with faculty, but as provost you’re a leader for students and staff as well. Can you discuss your approach to serving the entire academic enterprise?

I enjoy it. That broader perspective was the biggest learning curve in going from associate provost to these other roles. When I became interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, suddenly I was advocating for the students, faculty and staff, recognizing that, oftentimes, they all want different things. So, I needed to help find solutions that are the best for the institution and the best for all parties involved. The provost job is the same.

In the end, we’re here to serve our students. And I think it best to err on the side of what’s best for student education, what’s best for student learning outcomes.

How are your nearly 18 years at SLU an advantage?

I have relationships with almost everyone here at Saint Louis University. There’s a benefit to that. I know the backstories. I know why people are behaving the way they are. I know the anxieties that people have, the concerns. I know a lot of the unspoken. 

As provost, much of my job is listening to people, really hearing what they say and listening to them to the extent that they might change my mind. Ultimately, changing your mind or modifying a decision is not a point of weakness, but a point of strength. And the more you know, the better you’re able to do that.

What’s the best part about being provost?

I get to interact with all the different people at SLU and see all the great things that are being done. We have so many great people here. Then, highly related to that, it’s rewarding to have the agency to impact change and move the University in a direction that I think the community wants to go to put us in a stronger place.

What is the most challenging part of the job?

In an institution this size — and we’re not alone, all of higher ed is like this — there’s institutional inertia. Nobody ever wants to say, “We’re doing this because that’s how we’ve always done it.” Everybody understands that’s a really bad reason to continue doing something. But there are a lot of things that we do for that reason. We’ve been around for 204 years now, and our efforts have served us well. There are people who view stability as a way of living our mission. The difficult part is to show people that we can still be authentic to who we are, still live our mission, but we can do it in a different way that serves an evolving society.

Can you discuss your efforts to develop an academic strategic plan?

I am collaborating with the deans and the Faculty Senate and the faculty leadership, the staff, the students, the entire University and community on an academic strategic planning process. I envision it taking us the remainder of the current academic year, and I envision it being a strategic plan that lasts for approximately three years.

The academic strategic plan will be different from the University’s strategic plan, which operates at a broader level for the entire institution. For example, the University’s strategic plan has priorities around fundraising, overall community engagement and the physical plant. I see an academic strategic plan as focusing on needs, strengths and necessary investments of the academy for instruction, research, learning outcomes, student success and so forth. Any goals we establish would align with the University’s strategic plan.

What can you share about academic reinvention, SLU’s recent effort to examine its programs and degree offerings?

Let me preface by saying that SLU is no different than the rest of the academy in that we don’t do a very good job of closing programs. We do a really good job of opening them, and that has caught up to us.

What many people don’t understand is the administrative effort that goes into overseeing programs. Whether a program enrolls one student or a thousand, we need to regularly review it for student learning outcomes, assess it and provide curricular oversight. To many, the effort that goes into this is invisible. But we don’t have the time, bandwidth or energy to oversee the programs that are really impacting students if we’re putting that same effort into programs that are highly under-enrolled.

Our program review process is about doing the very best job possible with the great resources we have. We’re a resource-rich environment, but we still have our limits. So, we’re going to end up closing probably between 10 and 15% of our programs, affecting less than 2% of our students. In spring of 2020, we proposed 40 programs for closure. Since that time, 33 programs for closure have already been announced as finalized. I’ve changed my mind about four programs. That leaves three.

Is this review of programs common in universities?

Yes, and we’re fortunate that we’re able to do this in a manner that is more thoughtful. Some universities are struggling to the extent that they’re not going through the same community input process that we’re going through; they’re just closing departments and firing faculty. We’re in a very fortunate position. I know it doesn’t feel that way for those whose programs are closing, but we’re not laying off any faculty because of this. And we are not closing any departments. Most of our departments house multiple programs, and they can direct students from closing programs to one of their other programs. This is not affecting enrollment. This is really about how we do our work.

What can you share about the College of Arts and Sciences reorganization?

I announced my final decision on the A&S reorg in mid-December. Essentially, we merged some science departments (Chemistry, Computer Science, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Physics) with the Engineering and Aviation Science departments from Parks College to form a new School of Science and Engineering. I gave the opportunity for extensive community feedback and alternative proposals during the fall semester, and I appreciate everyone’s input in the process. Ultimately, this aligns with our Catholic, Jesuit educational mission, and the reorganization will help to improve student success, grow student enrollment and support faculty work in an equitable manner.

You also oversee the Divisions of Enrollment and Retention Management, Research, Student Development, and Diversity and Innovative Community Engagement. How do you balance those units with the demands on the academic side of the fence?

I consider them part of the academic side of the fence. I can’t imagine how we would figure out how to do something like transitioning to test-optional admission without the faculty working with the enrollment management staff. A lot of our outreach to first-generation students, to Pell-eligible students, is through
enrollment management, and that is something that is deeply academic.

And student development is similar. The student experience doesn’t end when they leave the classroom. The co-curricular experience is incredibly important. Student learning happens in the residence halls. It happens in the clubs with faculty liaisons, where the collaboration and overlap are deep. I think the provost should be overseeing that part of the student experience.

Additionally, our faculty’s research defines us as a university. Our wonderful faculty impact the world not just through the classroom where they’re teaching, but also through their scholarship.

And then, how we interface with and how we serve an increasingly diverse society is central to our mission. And so having diversity and innovative community engagement report to the provost, I think, is natural. We all need to think about diversity in terms of the student body and student experience — and also in terms of the faculty body and everything we can do to make sure we continue to be an increasingly inclusive place. We should be a welcoming place for everybody, regardless of their background or experiences. And so, we need to lead with diversity, ensuring it is inherently part of who we are. It’s the right thing to do.

Why was it time to have a common core curriculum for all undergraduates?

First and foremost, it’s important to recognize we didn’t have a University-wide core curriculum. We’ve had a robust core in the College of Arts and Sciences and in other colleges and schools, but nothing that was SLU-wide. And I do think having a University-wide, Jesuit, mission-based core that speaks to a common Saint Louis University experience, regardless of which college or school you’re in, is very important.

Beyond the primary mission-based reasons for a common core curriculum, there are practical reasons, too. For example, it’s hard for students to switch to different majors in other colleges or schools because they all have different cores. Some colleges and schools had cores that were very, very credit-hour heavy, and students couldn’t get a second major or a minor. That’s all going to change. So, there’s a lot of good for students on a practical level.

In the end, we hope that students educated with this new core curriculum experience the Jesuit mission in a variety of different settings and courses that are deeply tied into their major. Then, ultimately, they will all graduate with a common experience related to our mission.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?

I’d like to see us have stable enrollment at a level that supports everything that we want to do. I would like to see us increasingly be a more diverse and more inclusive place such that we look more like the city in the region we inhabit. I would like to see us support students who come here to the greatest extent we can. I also would like to see our scholarship and research continue to grow and make an impact.

The Lewis File

FAMILY: I met my wife, Heather, at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is a faculty member in our School of Social Work, and she is an amazing support. We’ve got two kids, Jack and Grace, who are 15 and 12. And they understand that my job is one that the entire family needs to be in for. The family is great about that.

FIRST JOB: Working at a pizza joint

BOOKS TO RECOMMEND: What I’m reading right now is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. My favorite book that I’ve read multiple times is On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

FAVORITE MOVIES: The Star Wars movies, especially the originals

TV SHOW YOU’D RECOMMEND: Ted Lasso. It makes me laugh.

SPORTS TEAM: The St. Louis Blues

FAVORITE BAND: It’s a Canadian band, The Tragically Hip.

FOOD: Pizza

FAVORITE PLACE ON CAMPUS: The new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building

FAVORITE PLACE IN ST. LOUIS: I like the Loop. We live in University City.

FAVORITE VACATION SPOT: My wife’s uncle lives in Hawaii. We’ve been there four times with the kids.

GUILTY PLEASURE: Chocolate or candy

— By Laura Geiser

Universitas, the award-winning alumni magazine of Saint Louis University, is distributed to SLU alumni, parents and benefactors around the world. The magazine includes campus news, feature stories, alumni profiles and class notes, and has a circulation of 129,300.