Jonathan Holloway has called New Haven home for the last 18 years. But on July 1, 2017, he will move from his current position as Dean of Yale College and Yale’s Edmond S. Morgan Professor of African American Studies, History and American Studies to Northwestern, where he’ll succeed Dan Linzer as provost.

“The big issue is the scope of the job,” Holloway says. “At Yale College, I’m responsible for everything in the undergraduate experience. As provost, I’m responsible for managing the entire university on the academic agenda.”

Holloway will leave Yale with a complicated legacy: As the first Black Dean of Yale College, he was a central figure in a series of protests during Fall 2015, which garnered national coverage in The New York Times and other major publications. They emerged, in part, from an email written by Erika Christakis, then-associate master of Silliman College at Yale.

Beyond filling the shoes of Provost Linzer, who has been at Northwestern for more than 30 years, Holloway will need to adapt to a new university bureaucracy, institutional culture and location. The transition from dean to provost is not necessarily an easy one, he says, even though some onlookers may see the move as little more than a jump in status within the hierarchical world of academia.

What the hell is a provost?

Although the role of provost has changed significantly in the last six decades, current Provost Dan Linzer also has a lot more to juggle than his predecessors. When the position was first created, only three people reported to the provost: the vice president and dean of faculties, the vice president for medical affairs, and the director for university libraries. Now, Linzer presides over an enormous university bureaucracy, including an office of 35 administrators to assist him in carrying out the various duties that keep Northwestern functioning.

They definitely have to do a lot to keep the school up and running: Linzer is responsible for distributing the University’s resources among the various undergraduate schools, which includes budget setting, making final decisions on faculty appointments, promotions and tenure, and overseeing admissions for both undergraduate and graduate programs although he doesn’t make admission decisions.

The provost works with ASG analytics to include student opinions in the budgeting process, and has helped greenlight student-led initiatives like WiFi in residence halls, more gender neutral bathroom options and increased shuttle service.

In essence, the provost takes leadership for all the initiatives taking place at Northwestern and tries to bring together numerous perspectives to fund programs that will benefit students and faculty alike. For Linzer, this means being provost is less a matter of individual vision, and more about collaborating on projects that bring together the voices and ideas of a lot of people.

In an email to residents, Christakis pushed back against an email from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Council that said students should avoid making culturally unaware or insensitive choices like wearing feathered headdresses, turbans or ‘war paint’ along with “modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or readface.” While Christakis did not want “to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community”, she wrote “I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?”

Citing her husband, Nicholas Christakis, who was then-Master of Silliman College, she also recommended “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

This message, which many saw as culturally insensitive, combined with an earlier instance of alleged racism at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, created a brief but intense fervor within the Yale community.

One of the enduring images to emerge from the protests was of Holloway standing on a flat sculpture called the Women’s Table above a frustrated crowd of students at the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Library, more commonly known as “Cross Campus.” Holloway says he came to Cross Campus that day to support students who were chalking affirmations for women of color at Yale and to bear witness.

But soon after arriving, students gathered around Holloway. First, there were a handful who made demands for a more definitive response from Holloway and Yale’s administration. They cited an instance a year earlier where Holloway had sent an email in less than 24 hours responding to swastikas being chalked on various buildings around campus. He tried to explain the response to the swastika incident differed from the one at SAE because there was no alleged perpetrator, though he now says he wished he had done more to make clear to students that the SAE investigation was being taken seriously.

Within a matter of minutes, the small crowd had ballooned into a throng of students. And what happened next, according to Holloway, was remarkable.

“Students started telling me their pain – and it was brutal,” Holloways says. “What wounded me was their deep disappointment, that they had expected better.”

Holloway knew he had to listen. He wanted to capture the pain and anger, the disappointment and confusion, all that raw emotion the students were feeling. He wanted them to know he heard every word they said, witnessed every tear they shed, and was moved. Although the students may not have known the whole story behind the SAE investigation or may have said things that upset him, he knew their feelings were genuine, and he didn’t know how to respond except to acknowledge it. And to the students, that made a difference.

A brief history of the provost

At Northwestern, the provost serves as the chief academic officer, holding them responsible for overseeing all of the school’s academic affairs. Despite the position’s importance today, the provost is actually a rather new addition to the university’s bureaucracy — Northwestern had been around for more than 100 years before we got our first provost.

The position emerged as a part of a restructuring plan brought to Northwestern’s Board of Trustees in March 1969 by Booz, Allen and Hamilton, a Chicago consulting firm (and the same folks who employed Edward Snowden while he worked for the NSA).

Basically, the plan recommended that the responsibilities of Northwestern’s president be split into two jobs: a chancellor who handled external affairs like fundraising, and a president who handled day to day administration. A provost was also created to oversee all academic affairs, including the recruitment of faculty. It also added a vice-president for medical affairs to head Northwestern’s medical school in Chicago.

In the following months, the recommendations that Booz Allen and Hamilton made to the Board of Trustees were not made public; in fact, even after the files moved to University Archives, it was impossible to access them without the written permission of the university president until 1995. At the time, the editorial board for The Daily Northwestern speculated the secrecy was because “many of the recommendations were controversial.” This was, in no small part, because Allen (of Booz, Allen and Hamilton) sat on the Board of Trustees and authorized the changes proposed by the study, in addition to representing the firm which was ultimately responsible for leading the search efforts to fill these various positions. It cost the university an undisclosed sum of money, but the firm screened and collected biographic information for more than 300 candidates for the various positions, so it’s hard to imagine it was cheap. These concerns were only magnified by the fact that Northwestern had reduced raises among faculty that year, and saw various construction projects fall behind schedule.

Despite these murmurings, the restructuring plan was approved, with then-University President Dr. J. Roscoe Miller serving as chancellor and former vice-president and dean of faculties, with Payton S. Wild becoming the first provost.

“There was a lot of pain and struggle going on in the public sphere, and a big struggle for us was that administrators didn’t seem to be listening,” says Isaiah Genece, a fourth-year undergraduate student and Yale freshman counselor. “The first and foremost thing he did was listen. It says a lot that he was willing to put his own concerns aside and hear all the words and concerns of the student body, especially in contrast to other administrators.”

In the moment, Holloway says his solemnity may have gotten the better of him. In trying to be Dean of Yale College – the dean of everyone, not just those students on Cross Campus chalking and protesting – he may have overcorrected and been too restrained. Maybe, in retrospect, he didn’t do enough to show his support for the students in public.

But Peter Huang, president of Yale College Council (YCC), has worked with Holloway on multiple projects and has seen his commitment to the undergraduate community first-hand. He collaborated with Holloway on initiatives to improve mental health services and residential communities at Yale, and says many students have talked about Holloway’s devotion to the school following the protests.

“There was a lot of anger and a lot of confusion about what it meant to be an undergraduate student at Yale,” Huang says. “I was very glad and grateful to have Dean Holloway there. He was very emotionally present during the protests.”

Although Holloway sometimes wonders if he was too restrained, some think he was too vocal in his support. And things were ugly: Erika and Nicholas Christakis resigned from their positions at Silliman last July, and some students refused to shake Nicholas’ hand when they accepted their diploma during graduation. These critics say Holloway offered too much praise, and as a result, he may have threatened the rigorous intellectual freedom Yale has long prided itself on.

Zachary Young, who was a resident of Silliman when the protests occurred, wrote an editorial for The Wall Street Journal in June 2016. In it, he said the Christakises were damaged by a “witch-hunt mentality,” and that Holloway did little to avert or ameliorate the situation when “he offered his ‘unambiguous’ support for the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s guidelines, calling their intent ‘exactly right.’”

Holloway says the Christakises may have inadvertently stepped into a minefield when Erika published her letter, but he also emphasizes they were not removed from their jobs: Nicholas still heads his lab, and Yale has reached out to Erika to teach her lecture course again, though she has not accepted the offer, according to Holloway. He also says colleges and universities like Yale are places of immense passion, and that disagreement is a sign of a healthy academic community.

But he also speaks of a need for a renewed sense of respect and dignity. “We are all losing faith in one another – that we can actually talk to people we disagree with and recognize that we actually share things in common,” he says. “I’m not trying to wage an ideological campaign. I will support the students with whom I disagree as much as I support the ones I agree with.”

As Holloway begins his transition to Northwestern – as of January, he’s already made several visits to campus to meet with faculty and administrators – it is likely that he will be asked to engage these sorts of uncomfortable topics once again, whether it relates to how buildings should be named (Yale renamed Calhoun College this February, in a controversial decision that contradicted statements made by university president Peter Salovey in April), the nature of student protest or how academic freedoms ought to be defended.

But Holloway feels confident that Northwestern is “in amazing shape,” and he, his wife, Aisling Colón, and his two children are looking forward to the move. In fact, they’re already singing praises of the town’s “Midwestern charm.”

But back at Yale, many students will likely miss Holloway's calm voice in these debates. “He’s always pointed us in the right direction,” Huang says. “Northwestern is lucky to have him.”