When news broke earlier this year that former University Provost Teresa Sullivan would be leaving to ascend to the presidency at the University of Virginia in August, one question rang in offices from the Duderstadt Center to the Fleming Administration Building to Wolverine Tower — who would take her place?
And while a list of possible successors could have included hundreds of well-qualified administrators from other schools across the country — or the more unconventional choice of an industry-outsider with extensive business experience — University President Mary Sue Coleman didn’t hesitate one bit when making her selection. She chose Phil Hanlon.
The choice was made without a lengthy search or nomination process. The University didn’t hire a headhunter. Less than two weeks from when Sullivan was publicly named Virginia’s next president, Hanlon was named her replacement.
Considering the enormous responsibilities placed in the hands of the provost — serving as both the University’s chief academic officer and chief budget officer — the choice is one that couldn’t be rushed. And according to Coleman, it wasn’t. To her, the choice clear from the moment news broke that Sullivan was leaving.
“When Terry left, I started thinking about whether there were internal candidates who could step up,” Coleman said in an interview last week from her second-story office in the Fleming Administration Building. She explained that she discussed the possibility of promoting Hanlon with regents, deans and executive officers early on.
Coleman admitted, though, that one factor in her decision was a grave concern that the University might lose both Hanlon and Sullivan at the same time.
“I was well aware that he was a candidate at other places and was being recruited by other people we respect, other institutions that we respect,” she said, acknowledging that at the time Hanlon was a finalist for the provost position at the University of North Carolina and was being recruited elsewhere.
“That also factored into my thinking,” Coleman continued with a laugh. “I thought, 'Hmm, maybe we have someone here that we should turn to because others are interested in him too.'”
For as much responsibility as he shoulders, Phil Hanlon's name and title — Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs — arent readily recognizable or well understood by many on campus.
This reflects primarily the amount of work the provost conducts behind the scenes — often trapped on the third floor of Fleming in a seemingly endless stream of appointments and meetings.
However, the provost does escape the confines of his 15’ x 15’ office and his 10-person conference room more often than one might think, frequently attending meetings, receptions and events elsewhere on the University’s campus.
Yet, for as much grinning and hand shaking as Hanlon may do and as many presentations as he may give, the lack of name recognition on campus for the post of University Provost and the man who now holds the position isn’t surprising. To some degree, it also has to do with the personality often found in the individuals who hold the position, a personality that is exemplified in Hanlon's personality.
His personality is exemplified by sense of duty through servant leadership and it’s clear that Hanlon, like many of his predecessors and peers at other universities across the country, sets aside his own interests to genuinely consider different perspectives.
Leaning back in his chair during a recent meeting with a group of his senior staff to discuss strategic planning initiatives, Hanlon was comfortable listening to the group’s opinions before verbalizing any of his own. Then, leaning forward and putting his arms straight in front of himself on the table, Hanlon shared his own ideas.
But his philosophy of inclusion, and the value he places on making sure issues are given the proper consideration, means he doesn’t stop there. Picking up his pen, he scribbled down notes when one of his vice provosts countered his idea with another. Hanlon didn’t interrupt and didn’t look at all perturbed when one of his employees contradicted his original idea. Instead, Hanlon waved his hands lightly and asked another question before agreeing to move forward with the new plan.
But while Hanlon was quickly convinced in the meeting simply by allowing his senior advisors to brainstorm with him, there’s one thing that seems to grab Hanlon’s attention more than anything, something that Hanlon himself admits frequently convinces him of his course of action — numbers.
Hanlon, who some may call a “math geek,” earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. in mathematics from the California Institute of Technology.
After that, Hanlon worked briefly at both the California Institute of Technology and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hanlon has worked at the University of Michigan since 1986, rising through both the academic and administrative ranks.
Starting as an associate professor, Hanlon became a full professor in 1990. Two years later, he was awarded the prestigious recognition of an Arthur F. Thurnau professorship.
In 2001, Hanlon was given an endowed professorship, being named the Donald J. Lewis professor of mathematics. The same year, Hanlon received his first administrative post, becoming the associate dean for planning and finance at the College of Literature, Science and the Arts — a position which Hanlon says he never expected to be in.
“That was an opportunity that just landed unexpectedly in front of me,” Hanlon said.
From there, the math professor continued to rise in the administrative ranks, moving just down the hall from his current office in 2004 to become associate provost for academic and budgetary affairs. In 2007 he was promoted to vice provost.
Then, on July 1, Hanlon moved to the corner-office reserved for the provost.
But such a rise from academic to administrator was never part of the plan.
“I had no deliberate plan to do administrative work,” he said. “I wish I could say there was a big plan and that I followed the plan, but I didn’t. It just sort of, well, things happen and opportunities arise.”
While Hanlon’s original career goals never included becoming a university administrator, having academic types lead institutions of higher education isn’t anything unusual. According to the academic who leads the University, it’s a logical choice, too.
“I think particularly at the provost level, well, even at the presidential level, I think this is true, that for faculty to see somebody who has combined skills of both being a great scholar, a great teacher and being able to have people skills, management skills, to conceive strategy for the University, this is always a plus,” said Coleman, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and was on the faculty at the University of Kentucky for 19 years.
“Ultimately, the Provost’s Office is the one that ends up making the tenure decisions, so for the faculty to be confident of someone in that position … that’s just a plus,” she continued.
Former University Provost Teresa Sullivan, now the president at the University of Virginia, agreed.
“Phil, as chief academic officer, really has to understand the issues on the academic side of the house and that includes issues like teaching and curriculum and how you deploy faculty time and also about research,” Sullivan said earlier this month. “All that is integral to deploying the full academic resources of the University. So I think that is the reason that most universities continue to look for high-achieving academics in the administration, particular in the provost’s position.”
Sullivan also pointed out that other University officials — like Tim Slottow, the University’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, who does not handle academic affairs at the University — tend to hold degrees in more traditional management areas like business.
On the other hand, Hanlon, who echoed many of Coleman’s and Sullivan’s comments, said it is concerning that higher education institutions don’t have more bench strength on the administrative side.
“I think it’s, you ask an interesting question, because we have weak training, weak succession planning for our administration and leadership,” Hanlon said when asked how universities are served by having academics lead them. “It is a miracle, I think sometimes, that universities do run well because you have people landing in positions who’ve had no training, no formal training almost, to do what they do. And I’m an example.”
As Hanlon described it, there’s no set “path” for academics to become administrators. However, once an academic becomes an administrator, they often continue to rise through the ranks — something that’s true in the cases of Hanlon, Sullivan and Coleman. And once appointed provost, many continue to rise to the position of university president.
Sullivan left over the summer to assume the presidency at the University of Virginia. Former University Provost Nancy Cantor, who served from 1997 to 2001, left the University to assume the presidency at Syracuse University. Prior to that, Bernard Machen left the University after two years as provost to assume the presidency at the University of Florida. Charles Vest also served as the University's provost for a little over a year before becoming the president at the National Academy of Engineering. Others, like James Duderstadt and Harold Shapiro, served as University provosts before being promoted to serve as the Universitys presidents.
Asked whether Hanlon had the “right stuff” to become a university president down the line, Sullivan said she thought that he did.
“Well, it certainly would not surprise me,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s not an unusual career path. It’s not inevitable, and I understand there’s something of a trend in the United States now for provosts to decide they don’t want to be presidents. So there are some who don’t, but there certainly are a good number who do.”
However, when asked whether it was an ambition of his to become a university president some day, Hanlon gave a more indirect answer.
“Well, I’m, let me be provost first,” Hanlon said with a laugh. “I’ve only been provost for two months and right now I’m just really focused on being successful and helping the University of Michigan be successful.”
And focusing on his role as provost is something Hanlon is certainly doing.
Waking up at 5:20 each morning and working for about an hour at home before coming into the office, where he typically works until 6 p.m., means that Hanlon’s not left with much free time to think about anything other than the University.
“I try not to spend the whole evening working, but I usually do a little work at night too,” Hanlon said laughing, adding that he couldn’t imagine doing this job if his children weren’t grown up. “My wife is very patient with me.”
Having taken over as provost just two and a half months ago, Hanlon already has a lot on his plate — including work that’s both a continuation of what Sullivan left behind and new ideas he hopes to implement.
Hanlon said typically a major responsibility of a University provost is to closely monitor and plan the University’s budget around increasingly complex budget negotiations in the state legislature, something he plans to make a priority as well.
“Continuing fiscal stability has to be job one,” he says, before saying he wants to talk about something “more fun.”
And what Hanlon considers “fun” is research. Mind you, this is the man that Sullivan described as having “in some ways a dull story, in some ways a nice story” and who Coleman said though typically seen as “very serious” also “has a droll sense of humor."
“I’m very interested in how we as a university can deploy our research breadth to tackle complex world problems,” Hanlon said. “And we do some now, but if there’s one thing I’d like to elevate, it’s that type of activity.”
That activity could, among many other areas, include the revitalization and preservation of the Great Lakes — something Hanlon says the University is uniquely positioned to help with.
“There’s a major federal effort to restore the Great Lakes … and involved in that is the necessity to solve a whole lot of technical problems,” Hanlon said, explaining that the University could offer assistance and learning opportunities in areas including biology, chemistry, economics and public policy. “We have the resources and the affinity.”
However, Hanlon says the Great Lakes are just one example of how the University could turn the real world into more of a classroom and help students not only learn through real practice, but also directly impact the world in a positive way.
“We educate a really large number of very high quality students. We just have terrific students here,” Hanlon said. “And they’re going to go out, many of them here, and land in positions of influence and land in positions where they have the opportunity to make a difference in the world.
“I feel like the way our University can most impact the world is through our graduates and what they do when they leave here,” Hanlon continued.
“The way we teach them to view the world is going to make all the difference in the way they act once they get out into the world."