What is a Provost? An introduction to administrative and academic ranks

This article is about the organizational titles you tend to find in higher education, particularly in four-year colleges and universities in the United States. People working in higher education rarely have a formal introduction to these types of positions and how they work together. Higher education can be intimidating, and the moment you’re hired you’re expected to know what a Provost does, what the Board of Trustees is, and whether the Associate or Assistant Vice-President is a higher rank. The purpose of this article is to introduce common terms used for the administrative and academic ranks in higher education.

Colleges vs. Universities

The term “university” refers to an institution with more than one college: for example, an undergraduate and a graduate college. A college tends to focus less on research, and more on teaching. Universities tend to focus on teaching and research. “Land grant” institutions focus on teaching, research, and service to the community.

Many colleges have turned into universities as they’ve expanded. For example, in North Carolina “Elon College” became “Elon University” in 2001.


The “administration” of an institution includes the people at the top of the organizational chart. They are responsible for the overall institution.

  • Board of Trustees: the Board of Trustees of a University are (usually) the ultimate decision-makers. The Board could decide to close a University, for example. They tend to own large expenditures and meet quarterly. The higher up in the administration, the more aware (and concerned) administrators are about the Board of Trustees.
  • President/Chancellor: the chief executive officer of an institution. They carry out the Board of Trustees decisions and advise the Board of Trustees. They make the big decisions that don’t have to be made by the Board of Trustees. Some schools say “President” and others “Chancellor.”
  • Vice-President/Vice-Chancellor: the people who report to the President who manage large parts of the institution, for example “Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs.” “Executive” is a higher rank, e.g. “Executive Vice-President” outranks “Vice-President.”
  • Provost: the chief academic officer (Universities only). Usually ranked at the Executive Vice-President level. All teaching/research should roll up to this position.
  • Assistant/Associate Vice-President/Vice-Chancellor/Provost: the next layer down from Vice-President/Vice-Chancellor/Provost. “Associate” is a higher rank, e.g. “Associate Vice-President” outranks “Assistant Vice-President.” I personally believe that Associate Provost and Associate Vice-President are the same level, University politics notwithstanding. If you see the rare “Vice-Provost” title, this ranks between Associate Provost and full Provost.
  • Dean: Deans are in charge of colleges: for example, the Dean of Forestry. Deans have an academic focus and report to the Provost. In my opinion, the “Dean” rank is not comparable to other ranks other than that it’s below Provost and Vice-President. Deans can be time-bound appointments similar to department heads (see below).
  • Assistant/Associate Dean: People who help Deans and report to the Dean. Again, “Associate” ranks above “Assistant.”

Colleges and departments

  • Colleges: Universities are divided into colleges, where each college may be run very differently. There may be an undergraduate college and one or more graduate colleges, or there may be colleges by discipline e.g. a college of humanities and a college of sciences. The head of a college is called a “Dean.”
    Note: the term “School” is often used instead of “College,” for example “Law School” or “Business School.” Practically speaking, the term “school” and “college” represent the same organizational unit.
  • Departments: Colleges are divided into departments, with one department per discipline e.g. a department of mathematics and a department of English. The head of a department is called a “department head.”
  • Department head/Department chair: Department heads (or “department chairs”) are usually (tenured) faculty from that department that rotate on a time-bound appointment. For example, a mathematics faculty member may become head of the mathematics department for 5 years (and then someone else would become department head).


Faculty are the core of a University. They do the teaching and/or research of an institution. Note: some faculty may not teach–they may be full-time researchers.

Fundamentally, there are two ways of thinking about faculty ranks. The first is by position type:

  • Tenured: A faculty member who has been given tenure cannot be fired except in extreme circumstances. There are many purposes to tenure, one of which is to give freedom to faculty to do research that may be considered controversial. In the 1800s it was controversial to teach US literature, for example.
  • Tenure track: A faculty member who is on a “track” for a tenure decision. Often, it’s a 6-year track. They are hired, and given some time to teach as well as to do research. There are checkpoints but at the end of the timeframe they must go up for tenure (or leave). Then, a review committee either grants tenure or doesn’t. If they don’t get tenure, they have to leave.
  • Non-tenure track: There are many terms for people in these positions, such as “instructor.” They are expected to teach, and only teach. They are not tenured and are usually not considered part of the “core” department.
  • Adjunct: People paid on a per-course basis to teach, such as a business owner from the community teaching a class to a business school. Adjuncts are basically temps.

The other way of thinking about faculty ranks is by title:

  • The Distinguished <<Name Goes Here>> Professor of <<Something>>: Titles that look something like this are called a “named chair.” An endowment is paying for this faculty member. These people may be the Nobel prize laureates or other luminaries in their field. You cannot compare these people by rank to anyone else. Generally, you want to stay off their radar and to keep them very happy if you are on their radar.
  • Professor: Full professor. It takes a lot to get this title.
  • Associate Professor: Tenured professor. These people do not necessarily become full professors.
  • Assistant Professor: Tenure-track professor who has not received tenure yet.
  • Instructor, Lecturer, &c.: Non tenure-track. See above.
  • Adjunct: See above.

So, briefly, those are the job titles and core structures that you don’t see in other sectors. There are also many departments not mentioned unique to higher education, e.g. financial aid, institutional research, or advancement, but the above should get you started in understanding by title who’s doing what in higher education.

Update 5/24/2013: Added notes: “School” can be used instead of “College,” and “Department chair” can be used instead of “Department head.”

3 thoughts on “What is a Provost? An introduction to administrative and academic ranks

  1. This post was of great help. It helped me in my organizational chart and helped me to understand hierarchy in institutions. Great read!

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