Celebrating Provost Peter Stearns’ legacy

Posted: May 13, 2014 at 9:04 am, Last Updated: May 13, 2014 at 10:01 am

My contribution to the celebration of Provost Peter Stearns’ legacy, May 12, 2014

I don’t think my kids have ever been as impressed by any of my jobs as they were when they learned that I worked with Peter Stearns, the very same Peter Stearns who wrote their AP World Civ textbook. Impressed by the almost 5 pounds of packed global history in the book, Peter the Provost, as he is now known at home, has become synonymous with endless wisdom (and endless study nights) at home!

Not all of his books are as heavy, but a simple calculation indicates that a full collection of his 125 books would weigh almost 500 pounds.  Rose Pascarell once famously said, every time President Cabrera tweets, Provost Stearns writes a book.  That humbling statistic sounds about right!

Interestingly, as much as Peter loves the written word, he likes to keep verbal interactions to the bare minimum.  His public speeches are succinct and to the point (normally three points).  And his work meetings are famously short.  One Korean official recently told me that he stayed up all night preparing for a 15 minute meeting with the Provost so he wouldn’t waste any time delivering his message.  The meeting by the way, must have gone well because that was the origin of our new Songdo campus, one of Peter’s many legacies at Mason.

With that reputation of being a “five minute meeting man”, you will understand my concern as I was still wrapping things up in Arizona in the Spring of 2012 when Peter announced he would come see me for a day-long meeting.  By the time we parted, I calculated we had spent 5 hours together.  One of the biggest honors in my professional life is that I managed to have the longest meeting with Peter any human being has ever had!

Actually, and more seriously, one of the biggest honors in my career is that I got to work side by side with one of the best provosts in American higher education for two years.

Being a provost is no easy job.  In fact, I would argue that it is the hardest job in academic administration.  While the average college president stays in office about 8 years, provosts usually last half as long.  Peter has served Mason for 14 incredibly productive years and he has managed to transform this place in remarkable ways.  Let me summarize a few of them:

  • The number of undergraduate programs increased by 50% and the number of graduate programs more than doubled.
  • Full time faculty increased from 881 to 1,431
  • Incoming freshman class increased from about 2,000 to over 3,000
  • Number of graduates increased from about 5,000 to almost 9,000, and total enrollment grew by about 10,000 students
  • Sponsored research tripled
  • When Peter arrived to Mason, about 50% of students were graduating in 6 years.  Today we are approaching 70%
  • Student GPAs and SATs are up but so is diversity: while only about 20% of our students self-identified as first generation when Peter arrived, 40% do today

On virtually every conceivable dimension, there will always be a before and an after Peter Stearns at Mason.  What is the secret to this unparalleled success? Here’s my theory.

Number one, Peter brings a unique intellectual perspective to his job.  The array of topics Peter has written about is as remarkable as the volume of his writing: the history of anger, of consumerism, of being fat, of being cool, of being a man and being a woman, of being a boy and being a girl, of being old, of being a father, of sexuality, jealousy, fear, of work and globalization.  While some of us look at trends in higher education that span a few years, he truly looks at the big picture and is able to reflect on the significance of the decisions we make.

Second, and amazing for a historian, Peter is notoriously good with numbers.  As some of my social entrepreneur friends like to say: no money, no mission.  Peter gets that.

Third, Peter truly and deeply cares about students.  It is a popular sport among faculty to try to reduce one’s  teaching load as much as possible. Peter, on the contrary, has chosen to teach two courses every year: History 125 in the Fall and a graduate class in the Spring.  According to the unscientific “rate my professors” website (which officially we never look at) you will find the following comments about his teaching:

  • “Awsome Teacher!”,
  • “Very nice and helpful but quizzes and exams are difficult. Everything is written (no multiple choice)” (guess who grades all those papers!),
  • I loved Professor Stearns. He really knew what he was talking about and I learned a lot more than I expected in his class.
  • If you really want to learn something, choose him!
  • Take Stearns if you have the chance! He teaches with an eye on the globe, not from an ehtnocentric perspective.
  • His lectures are interesting. The guy is very funny and witty. One of the best professors at Mason.

Why does it matter that he teaches and teaches so well to be a good provost? Because teaching keeps him grounded on our very first priority as a university, our students.  And also because it reminds him of the challenges of being an excellent college professor.  Which is the fourth and final element in the Stearns secret formula: he cares deeply about our faculty.

Many faculty members may see Peter as a tough guy.  Admittedly, it is hard to survive his job if you don’t somehow toughen up!  But what fewer people see is that in every private conversation with the administration or with the board, Peter is the most articulate and determined advocate of the faculty I’ve ever seen.  At heart, Peter Stearns is a professor.  He has always been and will always be a professor.  A great professor.

Doctor Stearns, on behalf of our 34,000 students and 150,000 alumni, and on behalf of the hundreds of faculty and staff who can call you a colleague: a big, unqualified, resounding thank you for your service.  This place would not be the same had you not chosen to join us 14 years ago.  I look forward to many more years of you as a faculty member at Mason.

Write to Ángel Cabrera at president@gmu.edu

No Comments