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W&M provost to retire in summer 2009

  • Geoff Feiss
    Geoff Feiss  The College's provost has announced his plans to retire in 2009.  
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Provost P. Geoffrey Feiss will leave the College of William and Mary at the end of June, 2009, retiring after more than a decade of service as a senior administrator – the past five as the College’s chief academic and budget officer.
A committee to conduct a national search for a new provost is being formed, William and Mary President W. Taylor Reveley III said in a campus-wide message Tuesday announcing Feiss’s retirement. The committee will include faculty and student members.

“William & Mary will greatly miss Provost Feiss,” said Reveley. “Geoff has vast knowledge of American higher education, and has brought that knowledge to bear for the College. He has done so with a remarkably soothing bedside manner and a delightful sense of humor, providing vital aid and comfort to me during the last seven months. We have worked together seamlessly for the good of the university and will continue to do so this academic year.”

Feiss came to William and Mary in 1997 as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He previously was senior associate dean for budgets and planning at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

"This is a pretty remarkable place to be a senior administrator," Feiss said, "because it has such strong bones as an institution. Its traditions run so deep. The students are incredible; the faculty is so good. You have the usual heartaches and heartburn of being an administrator—although you have those anywhere. But here, at the end of the day, you say to yourself: Look at what we've accomplished here; look at what we're building here."

As provost, Feiss added, "I am responsible for seeing to it that we deliver on the instructional promises we've made to our students.”

Those responsibilities include overseeing research activities on campus, as well as the offices of undergraduate admissions, the registrar and the College’s chief information officer. In addition, all deans and a number of directors at the university report to the provost. From planning the College’s new Integrated Science Center to helping create programs such as the National Institute for American History and the Sharpe Community Scholars, Feiss has shaped William and Mary’s history in countless ways, colleagues said.

 “As both dean of Arts and Sciences and as provost, Geoff Feiss has been a thoughtful, selfless academic leader,” said Carl Strikwerda, dean of Arts and Sciences. “The College has been very fortunate to have someone of his vision and dedication to academic excellence as one of its leaders over the last decade.  He leaves William and Mary a much stronger institution because of his work.”

Known for his steady leadership, patience and good sense of humor, Feiss led the College’s academic community through both a transformation of many of its buildings, programs and curriculum as well as a number of challenges associated with moving the College forward on limited resources.

"A good provost is as valuable to a university as a good heart is to an athlete," said Vice Provost for Research Dennis Manos, one of the senior administrators that report to Feiss. "Geoff has been a truly good provost and I have been personally blessed to work with him.”

Much has changed at the College since Feiss arrived in Williamsburg more than a decade ago. One of his first challenges as dean was to fully implement a new curriculum structure that had been in place for only a year before his arrival. The new curriculum, he said, included two important innovations. One was the inclusion of freshman seminars; the second was the incorporation of independent learning experiences for upperclassmen.

In 2003, Feiss was named provost after Gillian Cell retired. Feiss said working closely with Cell during his years as dean prepared him for the job.

“In a certain way I feel that, as provost, I’m the ambassador from the academy to the higher levels of administration and to the external communities. It’s important to strenuously advocate the academic position. I’m advocating on behalf of research,” he said. “I’m advocating on behalf of the instructional mission of the university.”

The legacy of Feiss’s advocacy can be seen particularly well in the College's interdisciplinary programs, which have grown in number and in stature during his tenure. Feiss led discussions that relaxed traditional departmental boundaries to bring about a slate of solid new programs without creating a set of new departments.

"That was very much a modestly contentious issue when I first arrived here," he said. "We worked extremely hard on that, making clear that a faculty member—who might have joint appointments in history and women's studies and American studies—actually works in three different places and has three different aspects of their job. These three entities need to talk to each other at tenure and promotion time and for merit increases and any other rewards that come."

The work, he said, was worthwhile. He pointed to the success of the neuroscience and environmental science and policy interdisciplinary programs. Feiss said that when he arrived here, the first "barely existed" and the second didn't exist at all. Now, they are two of William and Mary's most popular majors.

During his time as provost, Feiss has also overseen an increase in funded research. He also pointed out that the College has been more and more successful in attracting private foundation support, including some of the heavy hitters of philanthropy. The physical campus - especially the academic buildings -- has changed during Feiss's tenure. For example, phase one of the Integrated Science Center opened this fall. Phase two is under construction and planning is already underway for the third phase of the ISC. Construction is moving along on schedule for the new Alan B. Miller Hall, which will open in fall 2009 and serve as a new home for the Mason School of Business. Work has also begun on a new School of Education facility that will open in 2010.

“Having worked with Geoff as both a colleague dean and also as provost, I find few people have a grasp of academic issues and opportunities as he does,” said Virginia L. McLaughlin, dean of the School of Education. “He has been extremely supportive of the School of Education and a wonderful advocate for advancing our mission.”

Before administrative duties took him out of the field, Feiss was quite an active researcher, publishing a number of papers on geology and mineralogy and a co-authored book "People and the Earth: Basic Issues in the Sustainability of Resources and the Environment." Before coming to William and Mary, Feiss taught geology at UNC-Chapel Hill, at Albion College and at Harvard, where he was a teaching fellow. Feiss received his A.B. from Princeton University and the M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. All degrees were in geology.

As provost, Feiss works directly with all the schools and academic units on campus. This includes schools of business, law, education, marine science, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in addition to the library services.
"Geoff Feiss has done a superb job as provost of William and Mary," said John T. Wells, dean of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at William and Mary. "His breadth of knowledge and steady hand have served us well and we owe him a debt of gratitude for his administrative service. He will certainly be missed by the VIMS community."

Added Larry Pulley, dean of the Mason School of Business, "Geoff Feiss has served the College well as its chief academic officer.  He has the respect of his administrative and faculty colleagues alike, and his decisions have been well-reasoned and even-handed.  We will miss him."

Feiss and his wife, Nancy West, live in Williamsburg. During retirement, he plans to spend more time with his four grown children, with his grandchildren and at his off-the-grid log cabin near Fort Collins, Colo.William and Mary, he said, will always hold a special place in his heart.

"This place has a remarkable resilience and remarkable reputation in the higher-ed community. I think it's not always clear outside of higher education how much this place is respected and revered," Feiss said. "I've had the great pleasure of going to meetings and events and having people come up to me and say 'Ahh! You're at William and Mary! I love that place. I went there.' Or 'I wish I could have gone there.' "