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Performing dual roles is his discipline

Rochester Business Journal
January 17, 2014

Peter Lennie, University of Rochester provost and faculty dean, is focused on lowering the barriers to academic collaboration. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

Peter Lennie was thousands of miles from his home in London, making his first visit to America as an undergraduate student in 1968 and looking at the prospect of a long summer in an unfamiliar place.

So to pass the summer months, Lennie purchased a “99 days for $99” bus ticket at Greyhound that let him travel around the country. He remembers it as a transformative experience, seeing the rich diversity of America and the expansive national parks in the West.

Diversity is something Lennie, 65, has gotten used to during his long career in academia. He has taken a long path that started with fellowships at Northwestern University and King’s College in Cambridge and has led through various phases of academia to the dual role he occupies today at the University of Rochester: provost and dean of the faculty of arts, sciences and engineering.

In his roles Lennie has fostered a sense of collaboration, pulling from his own time as a professor to tear down walls that often exist in academic institutions.

“It’s an enormous advantage as an academic head in charge of faculty to have actually spent so much time as a faculty member,” Lennie says. “It’s very hard for someone not involved in research and teaching to understand the high demands faculty members face.”

Lennie also has taken a lead role in the university’s efforts to remain fiscally sound, developing a plan to cut costs in the wake of the recent economic downturn. As provost he is responsible for 500 full-time, tenure-track faculty members, overseeing the academic units outside the University of Rochester Medical Center that represent $350 million in the university’s budget.

He has done this all with an eye toward the future, aiming to increase the university’s stature in the research world while fostering an atmosphere conducive for both faculty and students to grow.

Growing into his role
Lennie’s path was plotted almost at birth.

He was born on Orkney, the small Scottish island chain—where, Lennie notes, the number of sheep almost equals the number of people. His father was a weather forecaster for the British government, so the family was forced to move often.

After spending time in a number of places, including the Persian Gulf, the Lennie family eventually settled in London. It was there that Lennie would grow into his nearly predetermined role as a scientist.

“It was always implied that I was groomed to be a scientist, and in the U.K. you tend to be ‘traded’ from an early age,” he says. “So I always knew I was going to be a scientist and my interest leaned toward becoming a physicist, but as an undergraduate at the University of Hull I became fascinated with the brain and was able to switch, ultimately ending up in neuroscience.”

Lennie earned his bachelor of science degree in psychology from Hull in 1969 and then received his doctoral degree in experimental psychology from the University of Cambridge in 1972.

A decade later, after working as a lecturer in experimental psychology at the University of Sussex, Lennie came to the University of Rochester for the first time. After joining the department of psychology in 1982 as a professor, he served as director of the Center for Visual Science and dean of academic resources and planning.

In 1995, Lennie became the founding chairman of the department of brain and cognitive sciences. While at the university he was involved in optics research, studying how the brain processes information in the visual cortex about the color and form of objects.

After nearly 17 years at UR, Lennie followed another opportunity. New York University offered him a position as dean for science and professor in neural science, an offer he says came at just the right time.

“I was ready to try new things at that point,” he says. “My children were off to college, and my wife and I had a fondness for New York City that we decided to indulge.”

The new setting fit Lennie and his wife, Frances, who are music aficionados and still maintain a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera.

But seven years later, Lennie received another offer too good to turn down. Joel Seligman, the newly appointed president at UR, offered him the position of dean of the faculty of arts, sciences and engineering.

“Even though I loved New York City, this was an offer too interesting to refuse,” Lennie says.

Dual roles
In 2012, Provost Ralph Kuncl’s appointment as president of the University of Redlands prompted a change at UR.

That June the board of trustees voted to restructure the provost’s position, with Rob Clark becoming interim senior vice president for research and Lennie taking over the role as provost. Seligman said the new structure would better address the provost’s role in the university governance model and create synergy between Lennie’s role as dean of faculty and new duties as provost.

With the combined roles, Lennie is in charge of a breadth of university functions. He oversees the school of arts and sciences, the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the college, River Campus libraries, the Memorial Art Gallery, the office of university graduate studies and the University of Rochester Press.

Lennie’s responsibilities also include institutional research, reaccreditation, the university health service, the deans committee on administrative practices and staffing the academic affairs committee of the board of trustees.

The new model also gave responsibilities for faculty-related issues—including tenure, promotion and leave—directly to the deans of the school of arts and sciences and the Hajim School, jobs that once rested with Lennie as the dean of the faculty of arts, sciences and engineering.

Lennie aims to create an atmosphere that promotes collaboration across departments, schools and disciplines.

“Part of my job is to make sure that the barriers to collaboration are low,” he says. “Another part would be creating the lubricant for people to find each other, and that means removing the administrative impediments.”

This is especially important given the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of academic work, Lennie says. As universities look to tackle the pressing challenges facing society, they will need to do so in a way that touches many different areas.

“In a world where many of the problems we’re facing need expertise from different disciplines, we need to make sure people who need to come together to work on these things are able to,” Lennie says.

He admits that an understanding of faculty members earned from decades in the classroom and research lab helps this work.

“The creative work involved in discovery and artistic pursuits is immensely hard,” he says. “It’s equally hard and takes great talent to communicate those things effectively, and being at the cutting edge of research and disciplines imposes burdens much different than other teaching pursuits.”

At the same time, demands from students are equally high, Lennie says. A growing number of students are entering the university with clear visions of what they would like to accomplish and expect to be “engaged in scholarly activity and immersed in discovery,” he adds.

It is the faculty’s job to prepare these students for a workforce that has become increasingly global, Lennie says.

“In the 21st century we’re educating, to a large degree, global citizens, students who will graduate and find jobs abroad,” he says. “They need to be equipped with skills the students in my generation never needed.”

Lennie also took a leadership role during the recent financial crisis. As the university adopted a systematic approach to cutting costs in the wake of the recession, Lennie took charge in his own role, says Ronald Paprocki, UR senior vice president for administration and finance, chief financial officer and treasurer.

“He’s been a significant leader in his role as dean of the faculty, and he deserves a great deal of credit for bringing the college through the financial downturn that started in 2008,” says Paprocki, whose relationship with Lennie dates back 30 years to his first stint on the faculty. “He’s very straightforward and direct. Something had to be done, and he did it.”

The university’s multifaceted approach to the recession included increased discipline on expenditures, salary freezes and a delay in some capital projects.

Lennie’s vision already has led to dramatic improvements within arts, sciences and engineering, Seligman says.

“Peter has been one of the most successful deans in recent history,” he says. “As dean of the faculty of arts, sciences and engineering, he has turned it around, taking a real strategic direction that has led to an increase in our rankings, in the size of faculty and an increase in both student body and student body quality. This has happened because he is so outstanding both as a strategist and at putting together a great leadership team.”

Looking ahead
At a time when academic research is seen as an expensive endeavor and traditional funding sources for this work have become restricted, Lennie says he is optimistic about the future of the research university.

Universities in general—and UR in particular—have demonstrated the great value in the research work they do, Lennie says. This has allowed him to maintain his optimism despite growing challenges for research universities.

“All of us at research universities and the faculty members leading the research have had a difficult time,” Lennie says. “There is a great deal of uncertainty, but the nation can’t afford not to invest in research.”

UR has been able to fare better than many comparable research institutions by keeping a sharp focus on its strengths, Lennie says. One of those is in the emerging discipline of data science. The university committed $50 million toward it in October, on top of another $50 million spent in recent years.

The university’s investment includes the creation of an Institute for Data Science, the construction of a building to house it and the hiring of up to 20 new faculty members.

“This is an area that touches almost every discipline,” Lennie says. “Historians are using it for a new way to look at historical data, and social scientists can use data to make inferences about people’s behavior. We intend to really be on top of this.”

Lennie sees other opportunities for the university to grow outside of research. The university has been investigating the use of online education, even offering three massive open online courses.

He says these MOOCs are not for credit but instead are a way for UR to investigate the value of this new form of content delivery.

“We want to learn the pros and cons and see how good of a vehicle these can be for helping us become more visible,” Lennie says.

The university also has introduced a digital media major that focuses on production and analysis of digital media from the perspectives of both science and technology and the arts and humanities, Lennie notes.

The work he does in such cutting-edge areas and in removing barriers for faculty to collaborate, Lennie says, comes down to one thing: the students.

“We hope we’re creating agile thinkers, but helping them acquire these talents is not easy,” he says. “It takes a great deal of dedication on the part of faculty and dedication from the university.”

Peter Lennie
Position: Provost and dean of the faculty of arts, sciences and engineering, University of Rochester
Age: 65
Education:  Bachelor of science degree in psychology, University of Hull, England, 1969; doctoral degree in experimental psychology, University of Cambridge, 1972
Family: Wife, Frances; daughter, Ingrid; son, Ian
Residence: Rochester   
Activities: Opera, computer programming
Quote: “It’s an enormous advantage as an academic head in charge of faculty to have actually spent so much time as a faculty member. It’s very hard for someone not involved in research and teaching to understand the high demands faculty members face.”

1/17/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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