When Alan Townsend, Colorado College’s new provost, first got a call from the search firm inquiring about his interest in the provost position, his initial answer after thinking for a moment was, “No, I don’t think so.” Townsend and his family had only recently moved back to University of Colorado Boulder, where he had spent much of his career, after working as the dean of Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University for several years. He hadn’t considered leaving Boulder so soon.
That search firm’s call stayed on his mind though, and Townsend soon changed his mind. “I just kept thinking that this is a really great place,” Townsend said. “I had known several graduate students in my field … who had come through here, and they were just incredibly impressive and a little different.” Townsend became one of the 175 people who either applied or were nominated for the position, and last March it was announced he would be CC’s new provost.
CC hasn’t had a provost for several decades, and according to Townsend, the decision to reestablish the provost position is “the product of a lot of good things that have happened at CC over the last decade or so.” Townsend cites faculty growth, program growth, the acquisition of the Fine Arts Center, the addition and expansion of the innovation program, and other co-curricular additions as reasons for the addition of his position. Integration of all the new facets of the college was too much to ask of the existing upper leadership, and Townsend believes his position as provost will allow the potential of all these new partnerships and programs to be more fully realized.
Townsend’s professional career has been mainly at large research institutions. As an environmental scientist, he has published over 100 papers and led numerous research collaborations. His most recent role was associate vice chancellor for research at CU Boulder. Townsend sees his background in research as an asset to CC. “[Research] is a really key part of both recruiting and keeping the best faculty members and enriching the educational experience,” said Townsend. He is interested in seeing how he can expand the support at CC for faculty and students in research.
He also noted the potential for great collaborations in the region. “We are located in the front range in an incredible hotbed for a lot of science…between both of the flagship universities and the federal labs there are a ton of really major research opportunities.” Townsend hopes to explore collaborations between CC faculty and students and these research institutions which he is intimately familiar with from his time at Boulder.
While research has dominated much of Townsend’s professional career, he is a skilled communicator and educator. He maintains a blog online where he shares “writings on the environment & sustainability, and on cancer, loss & hope.” And in addition to his responsibilities as provost, he will teach in the environmental studies department.
Townsend believes that in many ways his role as provost is an extension of the progress he strived for in his field of environmental science. Townsend has come to the realization over the past few years that, “the primary barriers to real progress are not scientific understanding or technical breakthrough…the biggest ones are…the ways in which we are operating as people.” Townsend says that this realization informed his desire to come to CC. “There is an increasingly urgent need for the fundamentals of a liberal arts education for these big challenges we are facing right now as a society.” Townsend said that dealing with the environment is just one of these challenges, other challenges include combatting the deep roots of structural racism and dealing with healthcare. Townsend believes that the power of a liberal arts education is to equip its students with the mental facilities to contribute to societal progress on these and other issues.
And Townsend would know. He is a product of the liberal arts himself. He went to Amherst College as an undergraduate, and after graduate school Townsend recalled, “I thought I would end up back at [a liberal arts school] just because of how much I liked it.” Decades and tons of experience later, Townsend is back on a small campus with a clear vision of the great potential of the education this institution can provide.