Johns Hopkins Gazette: June 24, 1996

Reflections On
Hopkins: 'I Never
Met a Provost
I Didn't Like'

Bette Palmer is retiring
after 32 years at
Hopkins, 25 as executive
assistant to 8 provosts.

Mike Field
Staff Writer

Bette Palmer has a fond memory of Johns Hopkins University the way it used to be. Back in the days when things were simpler, the campus was quieter and virtually all of central administration could fit into rambling offices carved out of the Homewood House mansion, some of the executive secretaries liked to treat themselves occasionally to lunch at the corner drugstore on St. Paul Street.

"Of course this was back when Milton Eisenhower was president of the university--the second time around--and Homewood had these beautiful offices full of fine old furniture," recalls Palmer, who will retire in the fall semester after serving no fewer than eight provosts as executive assistant. "I think it was called the Greenway Pharmacy then. It had a soda fountain and great sandwiches, and every so often it was a treat to walk over there for lunch."

Something in the telling of this minor little anecdote brings to mind a university before computers, the Internet and fax/modems made everything fast, fast, fast. It was a time when the undergraduate students were all male, the lacrosse team was unstoppable and, swears one contemporary of Palmer's who worked at Homewood House across the hall, "there was no central air-conditioning. If the temperature got much above 95, we closed up shop and all went home."

For many, it seems hard to imagine such times at this or any university, after three decades of massive public and private financial support have so utterly transformed the look and the function and the expectations of American higher education. The Hopkins of today is not the university that Palmer arrived at in 1964, newly married and eager for a job.

At first, she served as secretary for the Department of Biology in Mergenthaler Hall, a position that put her in close contact not only with faculty, but students as well. "I always particularly liked the students," she says. "One of the more rewarding aspects of the job was having dealings with them."

In 1971 newly appointed provost Steven Muller asked Palmer to join him as his assistant. Little could she have foreseen it then, but tectonic changes were about to sweep through the university, and very often the Provost's Office would be at the epicenter of these shifts. Looking back, Palmer says that it has been an exhilarating ride.

"We started out with a provost and an associate provost and one secretary, which was me," Palmer said of her move to Homewood House. "Garland Hall was under construction, and I was on the job about eight or nine months before we moved in over there."

Hopkins' long tradition of decentralization meant that each school and department was largely responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of its own budget. An innovative approach that encouraged "each tub to find its own bottom," this philosophy has greatly defined the character of the university's growth over the past 30 years.

The Provost's Office, acting as the university's central academic office with authority to set standards and establish goals, consequently was placed in the role of having to negotiate, mediate and establish common ground among various internal constituencies with sometimes conflicting agendas.

Around the same time Palmer moved to Homewood House, vice provost for academic planning and budget Stephen McClain joined the office to help manage budgets. "For a while it was just the four of us, then as things started getting more complicated the number grew," Palmer says. Today, there are four vice provosts covering budget, research, academic programs and academic services, all of whom respond to programs and priorities that largely didn't exist in the quieter days at Homewood House.

"Research has grown, academic programs have expanded, the student population has increased, there's just much more going on than there was 20 years ago," Palmer says of the new realities at the university.

And if things have grown bigger, they have grown faster just as surely--perhaps even more so. Being provost of a large research university like Hopkins is, in Palmer's words, "like being on a merry-go-round; it just doesn't stop."

The typical day in the life of a provost is full of meetings, presentations, travel and ceremonial functions, all of which are carefully sandwiched together by the provost's staff for optimal efficiency.

"The key to being successful at the job is living a structured life--if you don't, you don't survive," observes Palmer after having watched eight different bosses keep all the various hats in the air that are required in a typical provost's day.

Most of them become so adept at the constant juggling that the only problems occur when, for some reason or other, the calliope suddenly slows its tune. "It will sometimes happen that they will have two or three days, or even a week, without very much to do, then look out," she says with a laugh. "When you go non-stop month after month, you find you can't stop, and the end result is you drive everyone around you crazy."

Still, with all the excitement and the constant new challenges the job provides, Bette Palmer has decided it's time to step off the spinning ride. "My husband retired from BGE three years ago and we want to travel," she says. "After last winter I've decided I want to spend next winter somewhere where it's warm."

As alluring as that sounds, she's not really all that anxious to depart. Originally setting her retirement date as the first of July, she admits she was fairly easily persuaded to stay on until October to help with the transition to a new president. Come October though, she'll be leaving, but she volunteers that she might be persuaded to stop by now and then to help find files stashed away in the Garland Hall office ("Since I've been here since day one") or do whatever other tasks her 30-plus years of experience qualify her to do.

"I've loved it at Hopkins, and I wouldn't retire unless I felt it was something I needed to do," she says. "For all the changes we've gone through and all the things that have happened, you just learn to roll with it. Each new provost has his own style, each has his own agenda, and each was a little different. But the fact of the matter is, I never met a provost I didn't like."

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