John Simon, provost of the University of Virginia, on the lawn at UVA on Oct.… (Norm Shafer/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
It took University of Virginia Provost John D. Simon 10 days to figure out the right thing to do.
His boss of nine months, U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan, had resigned in early June at the request of the school’s governing board leaders. He was angered and baffled by the decision, but it was unclear where this brewing crisis was headed and whether he could do anything to change its course.
The stance he took, and the words he spoke, were risky and bold. They would, in the end, solidify his reputation with the faculty and add momentum to the movement that eventually swept Sullivan back into the presidency.
The leadership crisis came to symbolize the challenges facing all public universities, and raised questions about who makes decisions at them. It showed the power of a unified faculty. And it boosted Sullivan and Simon’s approval ratings to uncomfortably high levels.
Early one morning in late September, Simon walked into a faculty committee meeting with a cup of Earl Grey tea.
“Our fearless hero,” one faculty member greeted him. “If you’re smiling, we’re smiling.”
Simon, 55, can’t escape that the leadership crisis of the summer, and his role in it, has come to define him for faculty and students. “It’s unsettling, and it’s unusual,” Simon said. “It’s not based on accomplishment. . . I feel like at any moment someone is going to ask, ‘What has he really done?’ ”
Some jokingly refer to the crisis as “the recent unpleasantness,” but nearly everyone simply refers to it as “June.” Reminders of June are everywhere.
At the faculty meeting, Simon and the faculty leaders discussed “pre-June” issues, such as addressing pay disparities and restructuring how money flows at U-Va. But they also discussed many “post-June” issues,including launching a strategic planning process at the request of the board and addressing questions from the school’s accrediting commission about the attempted June coup.
Simon’s days are usually booked with meeting after meeting. He takes pages of notes, which he later files by date. He has learned that being provost is like playing chess. The sequence of actions matters. He will ask a question of one person at a 10 a.m. meeting and float an idea in an 11 a.m. just so that he can tee up a request for someone else at a 6 p.m. meeting.
The chess metaphor doesn’t work as well this school year. For Simon, it has been more like a series of chess boards with numerous games running at once.
After the crisis, he paused his work on issues that he cares about, such as building up the university’s global programs and coaxing collaboration among disciplines, and spent much of this semester speaking in soothing tones to faculty, alumni, students and others who were concerned about June.
Always, he walks the fine line of earnestly trying to work with the Board of Visitors and continuing to stand by his faculty — a group that remains skeptical about everything.
As he told one concerned official in a meeting in September: “There is angst everywhere about everything right now.”
An immediate connection
Simon and Sullivan first met in the lobby of a Raleigh hotel last summer. She was looking for a new provost, and he was on the shortlist of finalists selected by a search committee. They talked for four hours.
Simon, then vice provost for academic affairs at Duke University, had been courted by universities before and turned down several provost opportunities.
“John is not really a person who wants to be at a place to administer,” said Duke Provost Peter Lange, currently one of the longest serving provosts in the country, with 14 years in the job. “He wants to drive a vision.”
Simon and Sullivan immediately got along and found that they shared a lot of the same views about higher education and leadership values. They both came up through the academic ranks, and continued their scholarly work while being administrators. They are both a little nerdy with warm, disarming personalities — and rich senses of humor.
Simon graduated from Williams College in 1979, then earned a chemistry doctorate at Harvard University and did a fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles. He met and married Diane Szaflarski, a fellow chemist working on her PhD in L.A. Simon joined the faculty at University of California, San Diego. In 1998, he moved to Duke.
Soon he became chair of the chemistry department, then joined the provost’s office. Simon participated in rounds of faculty hires, led a strategic planning process, handled accreditation issues and expanded Duke’s international programs. And following the 2006 scandal involving the Duke lacrosse team, Simon led formal discussions about campus culture problems.
“He was as ready to be a provost as one could be without having actually done the job,” Sullivan said.
Simon called the new job “an opportunity of a lifetime.”