by Sarah Hart
It’s the start of the year, and there are many new faces on campus. At least one of them – new to returning students as well as first-year arrivals – is hard to miss. You might see him unfolding his very tall frame from the very compact car he drives, or notice his colorful, one-of-a-kind shirts, or even admire his hair, which, though modestly trimmed now, has a reputation for unruly behavior. This, dear Smitties, is our new Provost: Dr. Nicholas Hunt-Bull.
Provost Hunt Bull joins us from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), where he served for many years as faculty member, Honors Program Director, Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences, and eventually as Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs.
Dr. Hunt-Bull moved up to the Adirondacks this summer with his wife, Freb, (who will be teaching a section of English 101 this semester!) and two of their three kids, Rhiannon and Philip. Their oldest son, Conor, is in his first year of college in New Hampshire.
When I spoke with Dr. Hunt Bull he had occupied the Provost’s Office so recently that the walls were still bare and the art slated to go on them was stacked in corners. The bookshelves, however, were already filling with titles that reveal the provost’s background: volumes on and by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Thucydides, and just as many books with titles like Professors’ Duties, College Disrupted, The Idea of a University.
The dictionary definition (modern American usage) of Provost is “a senior administrative officer,” – specifically, one who oversees and supervises academic affairs and all things related to classes and academic programs.
I asked Dr. Hunt-Bull how he’d explain a provost’s job in his own words. “Much of a provost’s work should be invisible,” Hunt-Bull said. A provost guides and supports and pushes forward academic programs and projects, “but administration really should stay out of the way of faculty and students.” Provosts, he said, also stand up for academic quality – that is, they assess classes and programs. Hunt-Bull has a long-standing interest in, and much experience with, academic assessment. He explained that he first became interested in the process when he realized that it made him a better teacher.
Another area Dr. Hunt Bull is very interested in is that of faculty development. Specifically, how can faculty teach to best connect with the current generation of students – students whose sensibilities and quite possibly brain physiology have developed in a different media landscape than those of their professors? “Can we teach in ways that engages with those traits cultivated by modern culture? And encourage students to learn in ways adapted to individual personality?” he asked.
While he was at SNHU, Dr. Hunt-Bull published a “Letter to my 11-Year-Old-Self,” in a school magazine. In it, he reassures young Nicholas that the difficult times he faces – challenges perpetrated by changes in his home life, stresses of poverty, and dyslexia – will, eventually, pay off. In the end, they will be worth it.
The experiences alluded to in that letter had formative impact on the man Hunt-Bull has become. He was born in Canada, but while he was growing up his family lived in the Soviet Union, Ireland, Italy, and Scotland, as well as several states in the US. While his family was in Italy, the Red Brigade terrorists were very active. They bombed, kidnapped, and terrorized. Italy was in a state of martial law and it was not uncommon, Hunt-Bull said, for students in his class to suddenly disappear from school (their parents, presumably, going into hiding). But despite these evident dangers and uncertainty, Hunt-Bull said he had a sense of safety and stability. This experience instilled in him the perspective that yeah, the world is potentially dangerous, and yes, terrible things can happen. But, if one can accept the fact of riskiness, one can be calm – even comfortable – despite it.
I asked Provost Hunt-Bull what he thought was the best advice a student could keep in mind while going through college. “Learn as much as you can from the experiences that you get,” he said. “You’re not always going to have what you think you want: there will be challenges and frustrations – academically, socially. But, there’s education to be had in all.”
And I asked him what he felt we, the faculty, should keep in mind – what is the singular most important feature of our job? When teaching, he said, engagement is more important than content. Content can be acquired, but engagement – that is, inspiring interest in the subject – means that the content becomes worth acquiring, and worth retaining.
One of the most important moments for Hunt-Bull during his own college years, came when reading Plato’s Republic (written by Plato around 400BC, it’s a series of discussions on themes of justice) and “getting it.” “I had the experience of really understanding something difficult,” Hunt-Bull said. That was a feeling he wanted again. It motivated him through his academic career, and was why he eventually pursued a doctorate in philosophy.
Provost Hunt-Bull said that the study of philosophy was great training for being a provost. There are a surprising number of transferable skills, he explained. For example: careful reading, interpretation of complex texts, holding in mind contradictory ideas without going crazy, and maintaining a critical attitude. Being a philosopher, he said, helps him remember that what he thinks is not absolutely ‘right.’ “It helps me be not overly committed to my own beliefs,” he said. “That’s the training of philosophy – and it’s valuable in administration.”
As far as Dr. Hunt-Bull’s first impression of Paul Smith’s College? It’s an unbelievably beautiful campus, he said. And there’s remarkably dedicated faculty and staff here, who clearly want to find solutions to the challenges we face.
Welcome on board Dr. Hunt-Bull – we’re delighted to have you!