beautiful library; photo by Valdemaras D. via Unsplash
November 15, 2021
Constancio Nakuma
Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Constancio Nakuma, PhD

As luck would have it, CU Denver Provost Constancio Nakuma, PhD, also happens to be a linguist. Therefore, he is the perfect person to explain what the term provost means.

A multilingual educator with nearly 30 years of experience, Nakuma began his academic career as a professor of French and linguistics, so naturally he provided a little historical context. “University leadership titles like chancellorpresident, and provost derive from Medieval European religious, political, and legal leadership titles,” he said. In other words, the term provost has a long and illustrious history, which may explain why universities still use the term—even though students today may no longer know what it means. 

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word provost as “1. The chief dignitary of a collegiate or cathedral chapter, 2. The chief magistrate of a Scottish burgh, 3. The keeper of a prison, and 4. A high-ranking university administrative officer.” The definition that best fits at CU Denver is the last one.  

“The provost is considered in the university setting as the chief academic officer,” Nakuma said. In fact, his full title is provost and executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, which points to the scope of his work as an academic representative for both faculty and students (Chancellor Michelle Marks is the chief executive for CU Denver; find more details about the role of chancellor here). 

What Does a Provost Do? 

“The role of provost is more popular than people realize,” Nakuma said. While the word itself may be out of common use in the U.S., what a provost does is easy to understand. A provost oversees a university’s academic programs. As the chief academic officer, Nakuma helps Chancellor Marks and other university leaders implement the Strategic Plan. He supervises changes in curriculum, as well as academic standards for new majors, degrees, and programs. 

A lover of words, Nakuma happily explained the term’s etymology. “A lot more people have served as provosts without ever knowing it, because the term derives from the Vulgar Latin word ‘praepositus’ (placed before) and is equivalent to the more popular pre-collegiate roles like ‘prefect’ and ‘praepostor.'”

As someone who was educated in Africa, Europe, and North America, Nakuma has more experience with these terms than the average Lynx. “A prefect is a senior student at an English public school who is given authority over other students to maintain order in the class,” he said. “In sum, prefect, praepostor, and provost derive from the same Vulgar Latin word praepositus, which means ‘placed before’ (meaning, ‘positioned ahead of others’).”