Taking the Long View on Academic Leadership: Historian and Case Western Provost Ben Vinson III

speaker at podium Ben Vinson III, Provost and Executive Vice President of Case Western Reserve University.

Within the academy, there are scholars, there are administrators, and the relative few who manage to excel in both spheres. Count Ben Vinson III among the latter.

In the decades since he was selected for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow Program, Vinson has managed to rise to the highest ranks as a provost and dean as well as a historian. As one of the nation’s foremost Latin American history scholars, he recently published Before Mestizaje: The Frontiers of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico, which won the 2019 Howard Cline Prize for the best work on Mexico by the Latin American Studies Association. In 2018, he was named provost and executive vice president of Ohio’s Case Western University and board chair of the National Humanities Center. Vinson says his experiences with MMUF, which aims to help remedy the problem of underrepresentation in the faculty ranks of higher education, have informed every stage of his career, from funding his senior history thesis at Dartmouth College to the lifelong relationships and support network he developed with mentors, colleagues, and mentees he met through the program.

MMUF, Vinson says, made it possible for him to achieve success, first as a scholar and later as an academic administrator, where he rose to the positions of vice dean for Centers, Interdisciplinary Programs, and Graduate Education at Johns Hopkins University and dean of George Washington University (GWU)’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences before landing his current post.

“That’s where you see the reach and the support of the Mellon universe,” he says of the group of fellows with whom he has stayed in regular contact over the years. Vinson calls the close-knit community a mutual support network where he has felt comfortable swapping notes and strategies on everything from how to work with an advisor, fine tune research, or apply for grants.  “We covered every practical skill set you don’t learn in graduate school,” he chuckles. “You got to hear insights and war stories from people going through the same experiences--I think of it as the friendliest type of boot camp and therapy session you could imagine.”

Though originally from Rapid City, South Dakota, Vinson spent his childhood moving around due to his father’s career in the US Air Force. He was an early recipient of MMUF, enrolling at Dartmouth in 1988, the same year Mellon established the program. He started out as an aspiring economics major with aspirations for a career in law or business. After Vinson completed a course on the Spanish Armada, his professor recommended that he apply for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. That’s when Vinson began rethinking his future.

costumed people parade in street beating drumsAfrican-Venezuelan drumming and dance rituals--Catholic colonists presented "dancing devils" ceremonies to Latin America's African slave population two centuries ago, who adopted them incorporating drums. AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos.

He was drawn to the African diaspora and the history and culture of Latin American communities made up of descendants of former slaves. During an MMUF-funded research trip, Vinson became fascinated with the elaborate African-Venezuelan drumming and dance of rituals celebrating St. John the Baptist, which took place every June in Barlovento, northeast of Caracas. “Mellon funds also enabled me to buy good video equipment that I used to create a rough-cut documentary based on my interviews and research in the Venezuelan archives,” he remembers.

The result was Vinson’s senior history thesis and a window into his future in academia. Vinson completed his PhD in Latin American history at Columbia University in 1998, and later took up academic positions at Penn State University before he was named the founding director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins.

MMUF has also influenced Vinson’s career as a higher education administrator. For example, in 2013, GWU alumnus Gilbert Cisneros approached the school with an expansive project in mind and an offer of $7 million in funding. Vinson, then the dean of arts and sciences at GWU, was to lead the initiative, which would address diversity and inclusion in higher education, specifically a phenomenon called “undermatching,” a recurring problem affecting talented Latinx students who overlook selective universities and instead enroll at schools where they’re overqualified.  The effects are long-term and pervasive, with undermatching often identified as a major factor limiting greater the participation of Latinos in US universities as students, faculty, and even administrators.

Assembled supporters cut a large red ribbon in front of a buidlingBen Vinson III helps cut the ribbon on the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute. Photo courtesy of George Washington University/Abby Greenawalt.

Vinson says the project needed a structure and immediately thought of the MMUF model--a program providing financial backing, mentoring, and a network. The project led to the creation of the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute, one of Vinson’s foremost accomplishments at GWU. The Cisneros program selects promising future scholars as high school juniors, providing scholarships spanning from their undergraduate to post-doctoral studies. 

Just as MMUF provided inspiration to Vinson as an administrator, Vinson has given back to MMUF fellows, with mentees citing his invaluable insight both as a scholar and as one of a handful of African-Americans to enter the highest ranks of academia.

Miriam Thaggert, an MMUF fellow who is now an associate professor of English at the University of Iowa, was mentored by Vinson through a follow-up program linking senior scholars with recently tenured or mid-career faculty. Thaggert was named an MMUF fellow as an undergraduate at Harvard College and completed her PhD in English at the University of California, Berkeley in 2003. When she met Vinson, Thaggert had already received tenure.

Vinson set up regular monthly telephone discussions with Thaggert and another scholar. Their talks lasted 30 minutes or more as the three pored over their careers and lives as academics. “The topics covered everything from prep work for classes to making time to get research and writing done,” says Thaggert. “I valued Ben’s perspective both as a well-published scholar and as an accomplished administrator.  It was inspiring to see how he was able to do both very well.”

Tyson King-Meadows, an associate dean of Research and College Affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, praises Vinson’s mentoring, as well. “Ben has unique qualifications, since he is a really good scholar who’s deeply invested in the success of people of color, both within and outside the academy,” he says. “He’s been very approachable and amazingly humble.”

King-Meadows recalls one conversation with Vinson a few years ago when the former felt pulled in two different directions, balancing work with the need to care for an elderly parent. “He told me to think of my career as a marathon, and to strive for longevity, not just bright lights for maybe five years.”  

As he settles into his post as provost, Vinson says of the MMUF program: “It’s made me realize that diversity pipeline programs work. It may take a long time, but I don’t underestimate that it makes a profound difference. They elevate expectations, make impossible things seem possible, and create networks that help numbers of people navigate a difficult path.”

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