What Poetry Taught Wheaton’s New Provost About Leadership

Karen An-Hwei Lee begins her tenure at a critical time for the college. Can the discipline and empathy she’s cultivated as a writer help her rise to the challenge?

By Eliana Chow | Features Editor
November 16, 2020
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Provost Karen An-Hwei Lee. Photo: Katie Wilcox.

Karen An-Hwei Lee has made her office on the second floor of Blanchard Hall a celebration of friendship, literature and memory. Among the colorful spines sits a chicken made out of amber glass, a gift from the African American Pentecostal family who called her “bébé,” a Creole endearment, and welcomed her into their home when she was a Ph.D. student at the University of California–Berkley. Lee’s books include a copy of “14,000 Things to be Happy About,” a title she received in highschool and which she still reads (notable entries include “groves of lemon trees” and “asparagus vinaigrette”) when she feels down. She’s currently reading “The Genealogical Adam and Eve,” a recommendation from President Philip Ryken.

 

Lee, Wheaton’s new provost, is a poet at heart and by vocation. In the snatches of time between work engagements, she scribbles inspiration on scraps of paper, which she then tucks into a chocolate box filled with a growing collection of thoughts, images and experiences. The perceived dissonance between the work of a poet and the work of a college provost, one of the most administratively rigorous positions in higher education, is not lost on Lee. “With the meeting schedule,” she says, “[there are] expectations that you have to be in a certain place and pay full attention and not be writing poems.”

 

But you would never know about the pressure Lee faces as one of the top administrators on campus from listening to her speak. Her voice unites New England’s shorter vowels with a Southern California lilt to emphasize words mid-sentence. The way words sound become as significant as their meaning. When she speaks, it’s like she’s reciting poetry, as if every sentence is in pursuit of joy. 

 

Lee interviewed at Wheaton a few months after Margaret Diddams announced her resignation. Because of COVID-19 restrictions after spring break, Wheaton’s administrative hiring committee had to conduct all interviews online. For applicants for the provost position at Wheaton, the stress of traveling was replaced by the challenge of connecting with the search committee in a virtual format. At the time, Lee was the vice provost and accreditation liaison officer at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She was also teaching in Seattle Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program. Previously, she had worked as a professor and English department chair at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif., about 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

 

Even online, Lee made an impression on the hiring committee. “She was fully present during the interviews, ” said Terri Watson, dean and professor of psychology, counseling and family therapy. “I’m sure she had many things on her plate to manage at her own institution. But she was warm, engaged, excited and curious. I think that is one of the many things that impressed us about her leadership gifts — her energy, engagement and strong work ethic.”

 

President Ryken, with whom Lee works most closely, was also quick to point out Lee’s ability to balance administration and creativity. “More than many people you meet, there is a completeness or wholeness to who she is because she is both a very sharp, analytical thinker and emotionally present,” he said. “She has very strong aesthetic sensibilities. I think that’s just such a great fit for somebody who’s an academic leader on a liberal arts campus. Dr. Lee has a very genuine Christian faith and strong dependence on the Lord, and that’s absolutely essential for Christian leadership.”

 

As provost, Lee oversees the entire academic division of the college, working with the Senior Academic Leadership Team (SALT), which includes deans from each department. She oversees  accreditation, course schedules, new programs and all faculty hiring, tenure and retention decisions.

 

The provost position tends to be a revolving door on college campuses across the country. According to a Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) study of data from 2009–2019, small-college provosts serve an average term of 4.6 years. In an interview with the Record last winter, then-Provost Diddams estimated that she worked 60 hours or more per week. One anonymous provost told the Chronicle of Higher Education that they worked an average of 70 to 80 hours per week.

 

Given the number of hours a provost works and the constant pressure to meet needs at every institutional level, it’s not a mystery why colleges cycle through provosts so quickly. Furthermore, it can be difficult for provosts to build relationships on campus outside of meetings and Zoom calls. “The provost’s job is not more difficult than the president’s job,” Ryken said. “However, the provost has fewer natural opportunities to be encouraged in the role and to have some of the life-giving experiences that a college president has. There are ups and downs to any role, but the president tends to have more student engagement than the provost does.”

 

Diddams started her term at Wheaton in the middle of a controversy involving former political science professor Larycia Hawkins, which created a rift between many faculty and the administration. Lee’s tenure has begun in the midst of a different kind of challenge. The pandemic presents historic problems for higher education. With Wheaton enrollment down by more than 100 students this academic year, and the need to slash costs and reallocate funds given the hit to tuition, Lee faces hard decisions regarding the retention of faculty, potential cuts to college programs and how to build community in the academic division in a season marked by social distance.

 

“I’ve worked in higher education my whole life, and I can think of very few institutions where I haven’t had a change, specifically in a supervisor,” said Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer Sheila Caldwell, who served on the provost search committee and now works closely with Lee on the president’s Senior Administrative Cabinet and other boards, including SALT. “Sometimes it could be the way someone is brought into the college. Are they coming in times of calm, or are they coming during a ‘catalytic event?’ I would call COVID-19 a catalytic event.”

 

Caldwell suggests that turnovers in leadership, for all of their difficulties, provide opportunities to hear new voices and gain fresh perspectives. Lee is the first minority to serve as Wheaton’s provost, and only the second woman. “I think [Provost Lee] is a woman for such a time as this,” Caldwell said.

Watson noted Lee’s track record of successfully balancing numerous jobs and interests. “She’s found a way to stay active as a scholar and as a poet, even with the administrative responsibilities that she’s had at other institutions,” Watson said. “Staying engaged with one’s craft is an important part of retention and flourishing for all of us as faculty and administrators.”

 

A prolific writer, Lee has published three collections of poetry — “Phyla of Joy,” “Ardor,” and “In Media Res” — and two self-described “avant-garde science fiction” novels titled “The Maze of Transparencies” and “Sonata in K.” Lee’s poems, translations and shorter works of fiction have appeared in top literary journals such as Poetry Magazine, the Kenyon Review and the Iowa Review. One reviewer wrote that Lee’s verse gives off “the feeling of being on the brink, about to burst apart with positive, radiating energy.” In “On Floriography,” a poem featured on the website of the Academy of American Poets, Lee meditates on how flowers become their own language for beauty when human words fail. “Use floriography,” she writes, “or as the flower-sellers put it, / Say it with flowers. / — Indigo, larkspur, star-blue, my dear.”

 

Lee grew up in the Boston area, in what she calls “Emily Dickinson’s New England.” Her first-grade teacher helped her create her first chapbook. Upon receiving the volume, with her name printed on the front cover next to her school picture, Lee gazed at the pages on the bus ride home. “I remember turning around on the school bus and saying to the kids behind me, ‘I’M AN AUTHOR!’”

 

Still, Lee didn’t set out to be a writer. “I am the only poet in my family of scientists and doctors,” she said with an amused grin. When she entered Brown University for undergrad in 1991, she declared a biochemistry major on a pre-med track, interning in two labs during her first two years and volunteering at a local ER. “Though it was very interesting, none of it really flowed for me,” she said. “I didn’t feel a particular calling, interest or passion beyond the literary world. I was in love with books and book-making.”

 

Halfway through college, she switched to English. “I’m a relational learner,” she said, and the “pedagogical delivery style” of her humanities professors and the small-group discussions in English classes were a welcome change. Nonetheless, she’s thankful for her experiences as a science major. “A Christian liberal arts approach to STEM prepares you for a variety of life experiences,” Lee said.

 

Despite how unpoetic the work of a provost can sometimes feel, Lee says writing poetry is useful to her as an administrator. “You need to be mindful of purpose,” Lee said, “and poetry continually propels us toward meaning and purpose.” Poetry has also taught her to balance empathy alongside personal and institutional convictions. “[A poet] is someone who can contemplate deeply and can produce distilled expressions of what’s going on as an observer and also as a participant,” she said. “So that, in turn, informs leadership, because leaders have to engage with people and ideas and talk all the time. That’s how I explain [being a] poet-administrator.”

 

During her first few weeks on campus, before students returned for the semester, Lee took a walking tour of each academic department. She talked with deans and directors along the way, and these face-to-face, albeit socially distanced, interactions helped her forge new relationships, a foundation she has been building on even as the logistical challenges of her new role set in.

 

“I’ve got more than a thousand messages in my inboxes right now — all read, but I am working on responses — and text messages I haven’t read,” Lee said. “But I see God’s face; I see the order and beauty in the messiness of daily life.”

 

Recently, when Wheaton experienced its first light dusting of snow in October, Lee noticed how the tiny flakes landed on the rose bushes in her backyard. The image reminded her of Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord will last forever.”

 

In its way, the snow was not unlike the jacaranda trees back at her home in San Diego, their branches filled with bunches of purple flowers in the spring and summer. When the flowers fall, Lee said, they carpet the roads, treating cars and passersby as royalty. 

 

“In due time,” Lee said, “the wind will come and blow the jacaranda petals away, but they’ll bloom again. It’s a cycle. Sometimes we just have to live in the messiness as a form of acceptance. Being able to see hope in that life-giving cycle, and see God in this plan — I think that provides anchoring and resilience.”

Wheaton College, IL

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