Meet New Provost Ben Vinson III

A historian and former dean, he's eager to tell the university's larger story

Two students talking outside with Case Western Reserve University’s new provost, Ben Vinson III.PHOTO: Matthew Lester

Students Adrian Hattan and Esmeralda Terrazas with Provost Ben Vinson.

Ben Vinson III, PhD, had the kind of professors who inspire students to pursue a path they'd never considered. That's why Vinson became a scholar and then an academic leader with an ever-growing portfolio. In July, he became Case Western Reserve's provost and executive vice president, responsible for all aspects of the academic enterprise. Most recently, Vinson was dean of George Washington (GW) University's Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. He received his bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College and graduate degrees from Columbia University. Vinson served on the faculties of Barnard College and Penn State before joining Johns Hopkins in 2006, where he was a professor of Latin American history, founding director of its Center for Africana Studies, and later vice dean for centers, interdisciplinary studies and graduate education. We recently spoke with Vinson about his career and family.*

What appealed to you about the provost opportunity?

One of the things that was exciting was to see how all the disciplines fit together at a university with a reputation for being STEM-focused. I was intrigued to learn about the strength of our humanities disciplines and their part in the larger institution. I began to realize the potential for telling a greater story, and to see a great opportunity for someone who is a humanist to be at a place like this.

Among your many professional accomplishments, what stands out?

I'm really proud of the new book (Before Mestizaje: The Frontiers of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico). It's maybe some of my best work. I'm also proud of work I did at GW—what we did to help the College of Arts and Sciences integrate the arts within the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design.

How would you describe your management style?

At the core, it's a service mentality. We are here to try to elevate the entire institution, and I'd like that to be manifested and radiated throughout my direct reports. I also believe we must delegate. We must let people find their excellence and fulfillment in their positions. It's something that I appreciate from people who have managed me.

Your family recently moved to the Cleveland area. You and your wife (biochemist Yolanda Fortenberry, PhD) have a daughter and twin sons, correct?

Our boys, Ben (IV) and Brandon, are 8. And our daughter, Allyson, is 10.

Not that you have much down time, but how do you spend "off" hours? Do you still play the saxophone?

I haven't in a long time. Really, it's time with my family.

What prompted your interest in Latin American history?

It really is the magic of great professors inspiring people to follow their passions, to think about things they hadn't thought about. When I entered college, Latin America was the furthest thing from my mind. I was fast-tracked to law school or business school. But it was the beauty and brilliance of certain faculty members who dazzled me in a lecture or in casual conversations outside of the classroom that really ignited the spark— they made me realize history was not only my calling but could be a career.

Did you have to ask for that or did they see it in you?

They saw things I didn't see in myself. They inspired me to apply for a program for underrepresented minorities to attend graduate school—it is called the Mellon Mays program. I said, 'No, no, no, you've got the wrong guy.' And they said, 'Just try it,' and lo and behold, it was the right path. I absolutely love what I do.

—Bill Lubinger

*This conversation was edited for length.