Provost reflects on accomplishments and reasons for leaving

By Micah McIntyre

12.6.19

Margaret Diddams will be stepping down from her position as provost of Wheaton College at the end of the academic year.

“Margaret Diddams is a champion for Christ-centered liberal arts education who will leave an enduring legacy at Wheaton College,” President Philip Ryken, who announced her departure in a campus-wide email on November 25, said. “She often goes out of her way to give me personal encouragement and to ensure that our academic division is fully aligned with Wheaton’s overall mission.”

Since assuming her position in 2016, Diddams has taken on a number of academic and administrative projects, including restructuring academic departments to create more positions for deans. Other projects include the expansion of the Center for Faith and Innovation and creation of the Faith and Disability Initiative.

For many faculty, the news of Diddams’ departure came as a surprise, especially considering the amount of time she dedicated to her work. Chair of the Philosophy Department Sarah Borden credits the creation of new positions in her department to Diddams’ “work and leadership.”

“Provost Diddams will be deeply missed. She has a brilliant institutional mind and is highly creative,” Borden said in an email interview. “This attention to the ways in which the college can more fully and deeply support our mission will be an abiding gift she has given to all of us.”

One of the most notable aspects of Diddams’ time as provost has been her commitment to furthering diversity in the Wheaton community, especially within the faculty and those in leadership positions.

“I have been particularly impressed with her commitment to diversity at every level of Wheaton’s life,” said Old Testament Professor and Chair of the Faculty Diversity Committee Daniel Carroll. “I have seen positive movement, as she has worked with Dr. Caldwell, in terms of faculty and staff hirings, the work on the college diversity statement, her response to particular incidents and more.”

Diddams succeeded Stanton Jones, who served as provost for 20 years before retiring in 2016. His tenure, however, does not align with national trends for that position. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the average tenure is just under five years due to the demanding and often ill-defined role of provosts at universities.

Although Diddams’ tenure is consistent with the national average and will be four years by the end of this academic year, she is one of the few women (only 26% of all provosts have been female) to hold this position in the US over the past decade and the first to do so at Wheaton.

Diddams sat down with the Record to discuss her time as provost, her motivation for stepping down and her transition to another period of her life.

How did you come to the decision to step down as provost?

I will have finished four years here, but I spent six years in administration at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) so I have now been in academic administration for ten years. I love being at Wheaton as an alumni, as a parent and as a friend, and I’ve put so much energy and good work into improving morale in academic affairs. I’ve used my expertise as an industrial organization psychologist to change the structure so that it’s more agile, make faculty feel more empowered and launch some really interesting master’s degree programs.

I was a professor for 20 years before I moved into administrative work and these commitments have not allowed me to write and speak as much as I’d like. I’m really happy with the work I’ve been able to do, but there’s that aspect of it that pulls me away.

What does the next season of life look like for you?

My husband was eligible for retirement this past August so we’ve been thinking for a while about what, if any, next steps we could take. I thought about being part of the independent advisory group, looking into the allegations against pastor Bill Hybels [from Willow Creek Church] and working at our GC2 summit where I presented on bullying in the workplace. I have a unique voice, being trained in organizational psychology, in how to create healthy churches and Christ-centered organizations structurally, culturally and with their leadership. My goal next year is to enroll in a graduate program in the humanities so that I can do more focused work in this area.

I’ve done good work here at Wheaton and it’s a good opportunity for me to step into what my husband and I are viewing as a purposeful pause to pray about where God may be leading us.

This announcement came relatively late in the school year for a major change in leadership. Why was it not made earlier on in the semester?

I love being provost. [Leaving some of the programs and work] I’ve started is one of the hardest things. I love Wheaton and I could map out five years of things and just keep going. That’s maybe part of the delay — things are going so well. But I realized by October that if I’m going to step away, this is a good time. The announcement was not too late, as President Ryken says, “for the hiring cycle.”

When you were hired in 2016, did you feel any extra pressure being the first female provost?

I don’t like being called a female provost because I’m just the Provost. That got a lot of hype and it was so unimportant to me. The fact that I’m the first female provost doesn’t change the job and it doesn’t change me. You could say I’m the first French-Canadian provost and that would mean more for me given my family background. But no one wanted to broadcast the “first French-Canadian provost,” they wanted the first female provost. So, I’ll probably be the only female French Canadian provost Wheaton will ever have.

What about the expectations following Stan Jones, who served as provost for 20 years?

What I learned from my experiences at SPU and Wheaton is that you have to make the job your own. Dr. Jones was absolutely fantastic. At his retirement last semester, I said he was the best former provost a person could have had. He was there to answer questions, but there were no expectations that I should do things the way Dr. Jones did. We both hold so strongly to the mission of Wheaton College. I’ve done some things differently, but it’s just another way of following that same mission.

The position of provost at universities around the country is notoriously very difficult and is often not held for very long. Did you experience those challenges here at Wheaton?

It’s not the workload per se. I probably work 60 hours a week, but I knew that going in. My new structure, having more deans and empowering more faculty by pushing responsibility down, has provided me with more room to do strategic thinking. But working in higher education is a difficult job because the issues are often unrelated. The workload and the lack of control when unexpected issues happen are a chronic aspect of the position.

I think I’m leaving Wheaton in a place for my successor to be successful. I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t feel like that was happening. I feel like I’m going to turn it over to somebody who will not have the pressures that I had after the events surrounding Dr. Hawkins.

How did the challenges Wheaton faced in the first years of your position affect your experience?

I used to tell people that I know the job, it just so happened that Wheaton had unique circumstances at the time I was hired. I would say that after the summer of 2018, there was a miracle in my life — and I don’t throw that word around lightly. I was worn out by that summer and Dr. Kristen Page invited me to go on the western camping trip and those five days did something for me. I came back feeling absolutely refreshed.

What do you hope your legacy will be after you leave?

My legacy has been the respect I’ve garnered from the faculty and that means the world to me. I love the faculty here at Wheaton and working with them. Thinking about that and giving it up was really hard. What I hope people take away from my time here is that one of the beauties of the liberal arts is fierce curiosity. Being somewhat fearless in launching new things, having a vision and changing the structure here are all risks to take, but I had to trust the Lord to deal with my fears and concerns. Maybe what I want people to see is not so much what I did, but how I did it and who I was as I did it.

Do you see yourself entering into an administrative position again in the future or has your time in that world of academia worn you down?

Let me be clear that there’s not a weariness to it. President Ryken and I work really well together. There is a daily grind and it’s a lot of work, but I don’t feel like it’s pushing me out. That’s what makes leaving difficult: I’m somewhere I love, but I want to do something else that I love more, where I feel called to. And I want to be careful about the call language because, like I said earlier, I’m planning to take this next year as that purposeful pause during which I’m going to do more writing and then, as I do every day, pray for the Lord’s leading. If we feel the Lord is leading us into other work, I want to be open and prepared for that.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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