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Finalists for Texas A&M Provost Named

June 20, 2008

By Holly Huffman, The Eagle, Bryan, Texas

Jun. 18–Texas A&M University President Elsa Murano has tapped two deans from opposite fields and different regions of the country as the finalists for a top spot on her executive team.

Jeffrey Vitter, the Frederick L. Hovde dean of the College of Science at Purdue, and Robert Newman, dean of humanities and associate vice president for interdisciplinary studies at the University of Utah, are vying to become Texas A&M’s next executive vice president for academics and provost, a newly configured post.

Vitter and Newman were among three candidates recommended to Murano by the 20-member search advisory committee, according to committee Chairman Doug Palmer, the dean of the College of Education and Human Development. Palmer declined to name the third candidate but noted that Murano had tapped the two contenders who were unanimously approved by the search committee.

“We have a variety of very talented people we reviewed,” Palmer said Tuesday, the same day university officials publicly named the two candidates and announced that they would be on campus next week for interviews. “We thought these individuals were outstanding and demonstrated … essential qualities.”

Murano could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but she released a statement praising the committee’s work and the candidates they recommended.

Palmer said he expected a decision by next month.

David Prior was the last administrator to hold the executive vice president and provost post. He worked at A&M for more than a decade before leaving a year ago for a higher-level position within the University of Texas System. Mays Business School Dean Jerry Strawser was named as his interim replacement.

When Murano came on board this year, she split the job into two posts — one focused on operations and the other on academics — as part of an administrative reorganization. Russell Cross, deputy vice chancellor of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was named executive vice president for operations. A national search was launched to find his counterpart, who Murano said would serve as chief academic officer.

The ideal candidate, Palmer said, would have administrative experience as well as experience in developing academic programs and research initiatives. The ultimate provost also would excel in recruiting, developing and retaining “outstanding” faculty, staff and students, Palmer said.

“We want somebody who has a strong, proven record of commitment to diversity … to come in with significant background and experience and actively engage our university community in moving us to the next level,” he said.

Working with an executive search firm, the search advisory committee — consisting of students, faculty, staff, administrators and a representative from The Association of Former Students — contacted more 130 people, about 40 of whom expressed interest in the job, Palmer said.

Committee members then conducted “airport interviews” with the top eight people, Palmer said. From there, he said, the list was narrowed to three candidates and presented to Murano last week.

Vitter, a New Orleans native, noted similarities between Texas A&M and Purdue. Both schools, he said, are known for building collaborations across colleges and across campus. Such partnerships are important when addressing large-scale societal challenges for which no one discipline will suffice, he said.

“Fundamentally, I am committed to faculty governance and finding collective ways to help people to succeed,” he said during a telephone interview. “My role is really to help put into place the mechanisms where people can share ideas, feel recognized and flourish.”

The 52-year-old earned his bachelor’s degree in math at the University of Notre Dame in 1977 and a doctorate in computer science from Stanford University in 1980. He has served as dean at Purdue since 2002. Prior to that, he spent nearly a decade as a computer science professor and department head at Duke University, where he helped develop an interdisciplinary center and obtained his MBA.

From 1980-93, Vitter worked as a computer science professor at Brown University.

A person who answered the phone at Newman’s office said the administrator was out through next week. He did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview Tuesday.

According to his online resume, Newman has served in his current post since 2001. Prior to that, he spent six years as English professor and department chair at the University of South Carolina. He was an English professor and associate department head at Texas A&M from 1985-95.

He obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1972, a master’s degree in literature and aesthetics from Goddard College in 1973 and a doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1982.

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