The Collegian
Monday, April 15, 2024

New provost promises collaboration and understanding

Recently appointed University of Richmond provost Joan Saab. Courtesy of Sunni Brown.
Recently appointed University of Richmond provost Joan Saab. Courtesy of Sunni Brown.

Joan Saab has always liked spiders. Before her 30th birthday, she made a deal with her husband that she was going to get a spider tattoo in the center of her wrist, but her plan fell through, and she never got it.

Still, her love for the arachnids persisted, and Saab said her new job as executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Richmond was meant to be. 

As soon as Saab stepped onto UR’s campus, she knew it was the place for her. 

“I was a finalist for another job; I withdrew from it,” Saab said. “My husband came down, and I was like, ‘You have to see Richmond’...When we were at the airport [heading home], he was like, ‘I think you should take this job.’”

Saab started as executive vice president for academic affairs and provost in July. She replaced Jeffery Legro, who held the position from 2017 to 2022. As second-in-command at UR, the Office of the Provost works mostly with faculty affairs including matters of accreditation, issuing tenure and promotions and hiring and retaining faculty. 

Saab graduated in 1988 from Tufts University with a degree in English and Art History. She went on to get her master’s degree in American Studies with a concentration in Material Culture and Museum Studies from George Washington University. She earned a PhD in American Studies from New York University, according to the provost’s office website. 

Saab worked at the University of Rochester for most of her academic career, she said. She started in the Art and Art History Department and became chair of the department in 2012. She then became vice provost of academic affairs four years later. In 2023, Saab was promoted to interim dean of faculty in Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester at the insistent request of multiple faculty members, David Figlio, the current provost at the University of Rochester said. 

“I was asking lots of people, and all the signs kept going back to the person that people respect around here,” Figlio said. “Over and over again people just kept saying Joan.” 

Figlio said he was impressed with her initiative to take on this “super dean” role and her ability to easily step into a new position. As vice provost and then as interim dean of faculty at the University of Rochester, Saab was making decisions for departments that she was unfamiliar with. Saab also oversaw academic administration at the medical school and dealt with issues she was new to. 

Figlio said he appreciated how analytical Saab was when looking at a problem that faced the university. Saab set herself apart from others because of her instant ability to form relationships with people.

“Perhaps you’ve already started to witness this a bit at Richmond,” Figlio said. “But I think Joan is an example of someone who understands people; she’s a humanist.” 

Figlio said what made Saab a great administrator was her natural leadership ability. 

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“I was very impressed with the way in which Joan was able to make decisions that impacted her friends in such a clear-eyed and thoughtful way,” Figlio said.  

Figlio said Saab’s leadership skills were put to good use during her work as interim dean of the faculty at the University of Rochester. During her five months in the role, Saab helped phase out the role of dean of the faculty and delegate the different responsibilities of the role, Figlio said. This was a challenging process, Figlio said, but Saab was excellent at guiding people through taking on new responsibilities. 

“One of the reasons she was soon good at her role was that she took a university-wide perspective,” Figlio said. “She’s curious about widely varying types of works and ways of seeing the world.” 

Saab has only been at the University for six months but is working to integrate herself into the University of Richmond, she said. 

“I go to the football games; I wear my spider clothes,” Saab said. “If you invite me to something, I’ll go.” 

Through Saab’s work as vice provost at the University of Rochester, she learned the best way to run a university with multiple schools is to focus on collaboration, she said. For example, Saab wants to bridge a gap she sees at UR between students in the law school doing environmental justice work and those who are looking at environmental data in the School of Arts & Sciences, she said.

Stephen Brauer, Saab’s husband and a visiting professor of English at UR, said the collaborative approach to administration comes from her background and previous experience.

“She really had a lot of the same semblance of a diverse academic landscape [at the University of Rochester] similar to here,” Brauer said.  

He also said that Saab takes time to listen to others and does so with compassion and understanding. 

“She’s interested in getting to know her colleagues before she really dives deep into an analysis or makes decisions,” Brauer said. 

Jennifer Cavenaugh, the dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, said she appreciates Saab’s new ideas for collaboration across the schools and her open-mindedness about new ideas. 

“I really like that she talks about the radical power of ‘yes,’” Cavenaugh said. “ Finding ways to make things happen when people have good ideas, I find that very inspiring.”

Brittany Schaal, the director of operations in the provost’s office, said Saab spends most of her day in meetings, by choice. As a new member of the UR community, Saab is trying to soak up as much information about UR as possible, Schaal said.

“She’s doing department meetings,” Schaal said. “She’s going for walks around the lake; she’s grabbing coffee at 8:15 at Boatwright and just getting to know the people that help make this place so special.”

Saab compared the work of fulfilling her new position as provost to starting a piece of artwork. 

“I feel like all the colors are in the paint box,” Saab said. “And we've got great brushes and we've got walls that are ready to go. We've already got so much here that I'm just so excited to work with.”

Above all else, Saab said her goal is to be collaborative and listen. She’s taking her time with this position, she said. She doesn’t think it would be fair if she came in and immediately started changing things without knowing the people who keep this school running, Saab said. 

“She operates as someone who is a pragmatist,” Brauer said. “She says ‘Hey, sometimes these are things we need to do.’ But she also operates out of a set of principles that have to do with freedom of expression, freedom of belief, academic freedom.”

She wants to keep her door open to new ideas and encourages faculty to reach out to her with concerns and requests. That’s why her schedule is so booked up, Saab said. She wants people to come to talk to her about what they want changed, students included. 

Mickey Quiñones, the dean of the Robins School of Business, said the first time he met with Saab, she asked him what the provost’s office could do to support his school.

“I really appreciated that,” Quiñones said. “She’s my direct boss professionally, but she lets me bounce ideas off of her and helps give me guidance on things; she’s very collaborative.”

Cavenaugh said she is excited because Saab has a strong vision for arts at UR. 

“I hope we can really elevate and invest in our vibrant arts programs,” Cavenaugh said. “She’s landed with a lot of energy and grace and openness, and I think it’s big and exciting.”

President Kevin Hallock wrote in an email to The Collegian that he is excited to work with an administrator with a different disciplinary background than his. 

“She is a distinguished art history and visual culture scholar,” Hallock wrote. “And I am an empirical economist. I think our different backgrounds and diversity of disciplines lead us to better and more creative decisions.” 

Hallock wrote that in the months since Saab started, he has seen her seek an understanding of each niche at UR.

“She's so excited; she’s a breath of fresh air,” Schaal said. “She's bringing the genuine excitement that she has about her role in the work of the provost, and it is just really amazing to watch on a day-to-day basis. It's an everyday thing.”

Contact investigative editor Amy Jablonski at amy.jablonski@richmond.edu.

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