On Jan. 30, University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 announced that current Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prentice will become University Provost on July 1. Prentice — who was formerly the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Psychology — will replace current Provost David Lee GS '99, who plans to return to full-time teaching and research. As provost, Prentice will be the University's chief academic and budget officer, responsible for long-range planning. The Daily Princetonian sat down with Prentice for an interview to discuss her expectations for the new role, her background in social psychology, and the University’s response to the Trump administration.
The Daily Princetonian: Why did you decide to take the position of Provost?
Deborah Prentice: It was a surprise to me because I didn’t know my colleague Dave Lee was planning to step down, and I came back from the holiday break only to learn that he was going to be stepping down. I’m very happy for Dave because I think he’s going to go back to doing what he loves. It’s a really important time on campus in terms of what we’re trying to do with strategic planning and campus planning. We’ve been planning and planning for a couple of years now and have a lot of initiatives that have come up through the planning process. Now is the time to make them happen. [President] Chris[topher Eisgruber '83] asked me to take on the provost role in large part because I’ve been a part of all those [previous] planning processes and know what’s going on and am in a position to hit the ground running. For my part, it’s exciting to be able to step into a new role where I’ll have even more involvement in the longer-range planning for the next decade in making some of these things happened that I’ve been very intimately involved in.
DP: What are some of the initiatives you’ve been involved in?
Prentice: I was involved with the strategic planning task force in the humanities that recommended the changes to the art museum and a program in film and media studies. I’ve worked with the strategic planning task force in American Studies, and I’m very excited to see American Studies grow and develop. I’ve been working with the people who are developing further our wonderful Princeton Environmental Institute into a new environmental studies initiative. I work closely with Emily Carter [Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science] in all of the things the School of Engineering is doing. I’ve been working with the people involved in statistics, machine learning, and data science to try to imagine how the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning and our current Institution for Computational Science and Engineering can forward data science. Those are some of the major academic initiatives which will have really significant teaching and research components. They will involve space, reorganizing, and hiring new faculty. I would have a role in that as Dean of the Faculty, but as provost, I’ll really be responsible for overseeing them [the academic initiatives] in some sense, and I’m very very excited about that.
DP: Did your academic background in social psychology uniquely prepare you to be provost and if so, how?
Prentice: Social psychology is really the study of how people think, feel, and behave as social animals, and all administrative work is really about working with and for people — motivating people to think and work collectively toward common goals while making sure each individual’s needs are met. That’s exactly what social psychology is all about — maximizing what people can do together and understanding both what makes that happen and makes it difficult. My students always ask, “Do you ever use your scholarship in your work,” and [I say] yeah, every day.
DP: What part of social psychology do you specialize in, specifically?
Prentice: I study social norms, which are all of the unwritten rules that govern our lives. Social norms are hugely motivating; they’re a very strong source of motivation that is defined in terms of what is good and normal and appropriate. What do other people want? What do they expect of me? So it’s very much about understanding the often unspoken and unwritten but very real contours of how we function as social animals.
DP: What do you think will be one of your biggest challenges in your new role as provost?
Prentice: Oh gosh, I think there will be a very steep learning curve. Even though I’m right across the hall and I work with Dave [Lee] all the time, there will be a lot to learn, it’s a very big organization and provost has oversight over a huge amount. Getting a handle on everything will be the first challenge, but it’s also the exciting part. It’s the fun and the challenge.
DP: Which of your character traits do you believe will be particularly helpful in your new role?
Prentice: A love of learning and a genuine appreciation for the amazing people at this institution. I’ve learned so much in this role that will be helpful for me there.
DP: Are there any goals you’d love to see realized at the University that are still in the brainstorming stage?
Prentice: The task forces are all about what we’ll do going forward. There’s a huge amount that we’re currently doing that I want to see continue to flourish. I’m very interested, for example, in how the new space that’s going to open up for the Lewis Center for the Arts is going to affect arts education on campus. Those buildings are the realization of a long-term dream that I think will have a profound effect in the role of the arts on campus. I’m interested in our efforts in broad diversity and inclusion. I’m interested in continuing to work to make sure Princeton is a place where all people are represented and valued. It’s one of those projects that’s never done, so it doesn’t form up like a task force initiative, but it’s critically important. Keeping Princeton the vibrant, alive, inclusive place it is will occupy a lot of my time.
DP: Do you see your goal of encouraging diversity to flourish as especially relevant given the current sociopolitical climate across the United States?
Prentice: I think there will be new challenges [for the University in the coming months], and I don’t think we know what they all are yet. We know what kind of challenges the immigration ban poses to our ability to move people around on and off campus. I anticipate there will be additional challenges.
DP: How do you hope to approach decisions by the Trump administration that may directly affect University processes and regulations?
Prentice: I think we will continue to do what we’ve done in the past, which is to figure out ways to continue to pursue our mission given new constraints. I think we’ll also, as President Eisgruber’s letter did, make the administration and others in Washington aware of the ways in which the decisions they take affect our ability to fulfill our mission. This goes for everything from the immigration ban to some decisions they will make that will probably affect other more everyday aspects of what we do. What goes on in Washington affects us profoundly in terms of federal funding for education and the sciences and arts and humanities.
DP: How do you feel about your role as a woman in a position of power within academia? Have you ever felt that your gender has impacted your career and, if so, how?
Prentice: Oh sure, yes, just as it has with all of us [women]. We come with the characteristics we have, and it does affect our life outcomes, including career outcomes. Honestly, I haven’t given it a huge amount of thought, which is sort of interesting since I study gender. If having a woman as provost — I’m only the second woman dean of faculty — makes women think ‘Oh gee, that’s something I could do.’ I’m happy about that.
DP: I’m sure this job will be an increase in responsibility. How do you plan to deal with this?
Prentice: I’ll do it the same way I’ve always done it. I do have a wonderful family, and all of us support each other in the things that we do. I have hobbies; I run, I play piano — I’ll continue to do those things in my off-time.
DP: Any final thoughts?
Prentice: I’m really honored to do this job now. This is a wonderful institution, and I have great colleagues in the administration. My confidence that I can do this job rests hugely in knowing that I’ll have the support of all of the other people I’ll work with in the administration and the faculty. I truly love the faculty, and one thing I’ll miss about the dean of faculty job is [having such] a strong connection with them.