Among the neatly-ordered piles on Hillsdale College Provost David Whalen’s desk is paperwork regarding accreditation, a graduate school program, faculty sabbatical requests — and a stack of books on the pre-Raphaelites, two translations of Homer’s “Odyssey” he’s comparing, and a pile of English midterms he’s just graded.
After serving as provost for nearly eight years, Whalen intends to step down to focus more on those last few items and teach more English. Whalen, who was the college’s associate provost for seven years before stepping into his current position, said the transition will probably take place sometime next spring, depending on what is most convenient for the college.
“There’s a season for everything, as the book says,” Whalen said. “It’s probably time to return my concentration to students, to teaching, and to literature.”
Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn said it’s “extremely likely” that Whalen will remain provost through the end of the 2018 – 2019 academic year.
Arnn said that he is consulting with Whalen and the academic deans in the search for a new provost. They have received nominations from the faculty, and “those nominated are all being considered,” he said.
“David is one of the most important people to the college and to me, and it’s a very big deal for him to change his job,” Arnn said. “Everyone regards him very highly and trusts and admires him.”
As provost, Whalen’s job has involved a variety of duties related to curriculum, faculty, and students.
“It’s a question I often get, so what does the provost do? I have several answers. One is, nobody knows, and I hope we can keep it that way, so no one can tell if I’m doing a good job,” Whalen said jokingly.
More seriously, he said the provost is the chief academic officer for the college, taking responsibility for curriculum and faculty and overseeing departments such as financial aid, the registrar, the library, and the academic deans. He also has oversight of Hillsdale Academy.
“The reason no one knows what provosts in general do is they have a quite varied portfolio of responsibilities,” Whalen said. “The provost tends to be a very adaptable position. You can get that position to do whatever you need it to do.”
Joking that his two tools are “a mop and a fire extinguisher,” Whalen said his job is often unpredictable but also involves strategic planning and document writing.
“There’s a great deal of coordination and management of initiatives and projects and developments of various academic sorts,” he said.
After leaving the provost position, Whalen will likely remain in some kind of administrative position. Though yet unspecified, it will probably be advisory, regarding program development and planning, Whalen said.
Arnn said the college would benefit from Whalen’s gifts and vision in that kind of administrative capacity, though he said he respects Whalen’s desire to spend more time teaching English.
Whalen currently teaches one English class each semester, though it’s not required for his position as provost.
“I very much want to teach. So, I am essentially acting as a kind of adjunct or part-time addition to the academic program,” Whalen said. “While I certainly prepare and am conscientious of my courses right now, still I do not afford them the degree of concentration that I would if teaching were my priority.”
Professor of English Stephen Smith, who works with Whalen as dean of humanities, said Whalen will be missed as provost because of his leadership, good advice, and sense of humor.
“He has great vision and understanding of liberal education, and he’s very gifted at expressing that understanding,” Smith said.
Noting that Whalen has always been willing to teach outside his area of specialization, Smith recalled a time when, early in his career at Hillsdale, Smith was asked to teach upper-level 18th-century literature. Whalen called Smith into his office and handed him a box of snuff.
“It’s been handed down from 18th-century to 18th-century instructor,” Smith said.
Though Whalen’s presence as provost will be missed, Smith said he’s “very much” looking forward to Whalen’s return as an English professor.
“Not only am I looking forward to it; the most excited people should be the students,” he said. “David is one of the most gifted teachers of his generation.”
Whalen said he is eager to spend more time with students and literature in the coming years.
“I look forward to being able to read more, write more, work with students on their writing,” Whalen said, “but most of all I look forward to working immediately with students on and about great literature, ideas, and realities. That’s the best work in the world.”