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After job interview via Zoom, new WSU provost says cross-country move will be ‘a leap of faith’

Washington State University has selected Elizabeth Chilton as its new provost and executive vice president after a nationwide search that produced four top candidates. (Washington State University)
Washington State University has selected Elizabeth Chilton as its new provost and executive vice president after a nationwide search that produced four top candidates. (Washington State University)

Video conferencing is a strange way to meet with colleagues – and it’s an even stranger way to be interviewed for a top leadership role at a large public university.

Just ask Elizabeth Chilton, who was recently selected as the next provost and executive vice president of Washington State University.

Chilton has never set foot in Pullman due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although she spoke with WSU faculty, staff and administrators during a virtual meet-and-greet in April. And now, after being chosen for the $460,000-a-year provost position over three other finalists, she is preparing to move across the country with her husband, son and two dogs. They’re using online virtual tours to shop for a house.

“This is the first time in my life I’ve accepted a job sight unseen,” Chilton said in a Zoom interview Thursday from her home office in New York. “So it’s quite the leap of faith, although these times call for different contexts of decision-making than we’re all used to.”

Chilton is currently the dean of the Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University in New York, a job she started in 2017.

Trained as an anthropologist at the University of Albany and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she earned her doctorate in 1996 and spent several years teaching and curating museum exhibits at Harvard University. She then returned to UMass and spent 16 years in a variety of teaching, research and administrative roles.

“When I first started getting into academic leadership, I really realized that is where I felt like I could have the most important impact,” Chilton said.

Chilton said she’s eager to address big challenges in higher education, such as the rising cost of tuition and declining support from state governments. She was among the first in her family to attend college and hopes to improve access for other first-generation students. Noting her time at UMass, she said she understands the mission of a public land-grant university like WSU.

The provost is WSU’s highest-ranking academic officer, overseeing teaching and research across the university’s five campuses. And as executive vice president, Chilton will be second-in-command to President Kirk Schulz.

She will start the job in August as the university prepares for a fall semester like no other – a careful return to in-person teaching after courses were moved online and schools took major financial hits due to the pandemic.

Chilton also will take over a position that has been filled by three other people in the span of one year. She will replace Bryan Slinker, who has served as interim provost since late September when Mitzi Montoya left the position for a faculty job in the university’s Carson College of Business.

Montoya spent less than two months as provost after she was recruited away from Oregon State University. In internal WSU emails, she described receiving sexist performance reviews as well as pushback from other administrators. She and the university reached a legal settlement that describes her departure from the provost position as a mutual decision between her and Schulz.

On Friday, the University of New Mexico announced it has hired Montoya as dean of its management school, describing her as “a thought leader in higher education” and “an innovator with a mission to be an agent of change for the greater good.” She will start that job on July 1.

WSU has hired a law firm to review how Montoya was treated, including allegations of gender bias and any “improper influence or pressure” surrounding the decision to end her appointment as provost. WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said Friday that investigation will continue.

Chilton said she had read about Montoya’s time as provost in news reports. Asked about any challenges she might face as a new leader at WSU, Chilton pointed to her experience at Binghamton, which is a part of the State University of New York system.

“When I came here to Binghamton, they had been through a couple of different deans before me in rapid succession, and there was a lot of skepticism about yet again, another dean coming in,” she said. “And so I had to build trust.”

During that first year as dean, Chilton said, she felt “tested” by colleagues who wanted to understand her priorities and leadership style. It’s all part of the process, she said. She approaches those challenges through the lens of an anthropologist, striving to understand the culture and history of the institution where she works.

“Anthropologists are really trained to look at the whole system and the whole culture that they’re examining, whether it’s examining the United States culture or a Native American culture from 5,000 years ago,” she said.

“I’ve been here at Binghamton for three years, and every single day or week I learn something new about the history of the place, the motivation behind the creation of a program. And hopefully that learning process never stops for any academic leader.”

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