April 15, 2023

The Accidental Provost

The Accidental Provost

The Accidental Provost

By Tucker Mitchell  |  March 2023  |  FMU Focus Magazine Spring 2023

man holding turtle

Dr. Peter King didn’t grow up longing to be an academic, didn’t expect to live in America, and never imagined he’d become a university provost. Isn’t it great when a plan works out?

It would be wrong to say that Peter King came to Francis Marion University by accident, but it was hardly the result of a careful plan.

We all know how that goes. Mice, men. The best plans, laid, unlaid or waylaid. Such is life. Such is the cascading set of circumstances that brought a late-in-life biology professor from Sydney, Australia to a small public university in the wilds of South Carolina, and, more to the point, never let him go back. 

King, his wife Annie, and their two sons arrived in the fall of 1996. This spring Dr. King will say his official goodbye, retiring as FMU’s provost following a long and distinguished career filled with turns and non-turns that he never imagined. 

As it all winds down, it’s hard for King to say which of those is most improbable.

“Originally, of course, the plan was always to get the degree (his doctorate, from North Carolina State University) and then go right back (to Australia),” says King. “But it was …  complicated. We had kids in high school at that time. They came to the U.S. with me to go to school. It didn’t seem like a great time to move. 

“So we got here and we were still looking to go back, but we just felt very much at home (in Florence, at FMU), right from the start. So, the longer we stayed, the better it got, and the less we talked about moving back. 

“I remember, about four years after we arrived, we went on a visit home to see friends, family. We drove around (southeastern Australia) quite a bit, visiting friends and what, and Annie and I would say to each other, ‘want to live here? … How about here?’ We never found a place where we said, ‘yes, here,’ and I think it began to dawn on us that that was because we liked where we were. And then, of course, some other things happened …”

Other things that King didn’t imagine either. A dedicated physiologist and an accomplished researcher (his field is herpetology, particularly turtles), he never dreamed of taking the leap into administration. He was amazed that anyone would hire a freshly minted professor in his 40s in the first place, and once FMU did, he was absolutely positive that that was as far as it would go. Department chair? Surely not a job for an Aussie. 

“I mean, I wasn’t from the U.S.,” says King. “I really couldn’t see it happening.”

But others could. His colleagues in biology elected him as department chair, where, by all accounts, he performed admirably. FMU President Fred Carter and former provost Dr. Richard Chapman took note of the new chair and brought him to the Stokes Building a few years later as an associate provost for enrollment management. 

And then Chapman retired and King, now with years of administrative experience under his belt, was the logical choice to fill those shoes.

“The move to associate provost, that was the big move,” says King. “There was some pressure to take the position. It was not something I applied for and it is hard to say ‘no.’ … At the same time there was some pressure from within. I think when you’re in a situation like that you’ve always got to wonder, if you don’t do it, could I have done it? It was the same thing with the opportunity to move to the provost position, although by then I saw it as more of an opportunity. Can I do this? Yes, I think so.”

TROUBLED WATERS

King’s intuition turned out to be right. King helped Carter guide FMU through a critical and diverse time in the university’s history. It was a period of great growth, marked by the launch of dozens of new academic programs, expansion of FMU’s international study offerings, lots of new construction, and more. And, it included riding out the storm created by the global pandemic.

Colleagues laud the affable, low-key King for the long hours he put in and for his steadying presence during those difficult days. Faculty who worked with him closely say he’s a good guy to have on your side “in the clutch.”

Carter agrees, saying, “Peter was someone I could count on — we all could. He just did a fine job of leading FMU during an important, and, at times, difficult period.

“What I’m struck most by in Peter is that he is one of those wonderful faculty we seem to attract who came here relatively early in his career; came to love our university, our students, this region, so profoundly, that he stayed. As people got to know him, they valued his abilities and so he became chair, associate provost, and provost. And then, over the course of the years, we had so much in common on so many issues that we became the very best of friends.

“I’ll miss him a lot. A lot of people will.”

NATURE’S CALL

The early years of Peter King’s adult life offered little suggestion of all that was to come. 

He completed a business degree from New South Wales Institute of Technology in 1980, and went to work in the family business. His father started a small manufacturer’s rep agency that King’s older brother Bill took over after his dad passed away. The Kings promoted and marketed producers and grocery products — dog food, Canadian salmon, and California almonds were some of the better accounts — to Australia’s big supermarket chains. 

After six or seven years on the dog food beat, King left to start a horticultural tree service, an inkling of the biology career to come. He completed a one-year course at the local technical college to earn the necessary certificate. A few years later, he and Annie bought a small farm along the Bellinger River in a rural part of the State of New South Wales, between Sydney and Brisbane. They grew kiwis and other crops for commercial sale. King spent his spare time exploring the local flora and fauna.

Of special interest were the turtles he and his growing family found in the Bellinger, which bisected the property. King regularly captured some specimens which he brought back to his office at the farm. 

The “a-ha moment” that led King down a new career path occurred a few winters into the farming life. King’s self-effacing description suggests something less than an epiphany, but it changed his life all the same.

“I had this aquarium in my office on the farm,” says King. “I’d catch things from the river and put them in it, you know, just something I was interested in. Anyway, we caught a couple of hatchlings of these turtles and put them in, and then, as they were growing, I noticed they’d sink to the bottom and just stay there. It got pretty cold in that room, sometimes. I guess it felt like winter to the turtles. Anyway, these little guys would just sit there on the bottom. They didn’t look like they were breathing, but then they also weren’t dead. 

“That kind of got me to wondering just how that got on (that is, how they stayed alive without breathing) and that ended up being a research project, and you know, from there …”

From there King moved from farming to academics. He enrolled in a correspondence course in biology at the nearby University of New England in Armidale  — “It really was correspondence, there was no ‘online’ then,” he says — and excelled, eventually moving to campus to finish up his biology degree in person. One of his professors was Dr. Harold Heatwole, an American who’d moved to Australia to teach. Heatwole, sometimes described as one of the fathers of herpetology in Australia, was well on his way to becoming a research legend down under when King met up with him.

King completed his undergraduate degree and his “honors” year, which in the Australian system is equivalent to a masters. Dr. Heatwole had already agreed to take King on as a doctoral student, when Heatwole was suddenly hired as chair of the zoology department at faraway N.C. State, in the US of A.

Heatwole asked King to follow him on the 10,000-mile journey and become his first doctoral student in the U.S. King, who’d been inspired by Heatwole’s intense love for research, agreed. After all, it would only be a few years of study and then he and Annie would be back in Australia.

men at podium

ON TO FMU

King prospered at N.C. State, where he graduated with a PhD. in zoology. After graduation, he joined FMU’s renowned biology department during a time of transition, when some of the original “pillars” were reaching the end of their tenure. That probably helped him fit in. He assumed the role of the department’s physiologist, working under the tutelage of the highly respected Dr. Tom Roop. 

“I was kind of his protégé, if you like, and that was not a bad thing to be at FMU,” says King. “But really there was just this big group — Julia Krebs, Jeff Camper, Travis Knowles, Lisa Pike, Jerry Long, and Larry Swails, who was the chair then, who all just made me feel right at home. In retrospect, it was very, very easy. You would hope all new professors have a reception like that.”

Knowles, still a close friend, says King was an easy man to like. He had a sense of humor, was very collegial, and clearly enjoyed what he did.

“Peter always thought about students, engaging them both in the classroom and in his own research with Diamondback Terrapins, a high priority conservation species in South Carolina,” says Knowles. “He was right in there with his students, wading through water in Winyah Bay, pulling a seine to collect and mark terrapins. … But, he was quickly recognized for his administrative skills.”

The implication: it was obvious to Knowles that his friend would be moving on.

FAST LEARNER

King admits he faced a steep learning curve when he moved into the provost’s chair. His predecessor, Chapman, held the post for 17 years, knew its many ins and out, and seemed to handle it all effortlessly. It was not so for King. The multi-faceted nature of the job brought unrelenting pressure and forced him into some uncomfortable positions. But he persevered, applying the traits that have served him all his life: be fair, be consistent, work hard.

FMU Professor Dr. Chris Kennedy served as an associate provost under King and often joined him for late afternoon walks across campus. He lauds his friend’s integrity and stability and notes that King was one of the “kindest, most thoughtful, most genuine people I’ve run across in academics. 

“I’m going to miss our walks,” Kennedy says.

Dr. Mark Blackwell, president of FMU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an advocacy group for faculty rights and standards, says King’s knowledge of the faculty “rule book” allowed him to master his role as the faculty leader and its primary conduit to the university’s administration. 

“He knew it all backwards and forwards. There’s nobody in this state who knows those rules and procedures better than Peter King,” says Blackwell. “And, he insisted that we follow the rules to the letter. In that way, and others, he was a great advocate for the principles of shared governance. Because of the culture at FMU, there are few things that are more important.”

FMU has been recognized repeatedly by the AAUP and others for its effective system of shared governance. It is part of the university’s DNA, that coursed through long-timers like King.

man and woman smiling

A DIFFERENCE MADE

King says he’ll always cherish his classroom days and missed the student interactions during the back half of his career. But, as his tenure as an administrator grew, he found satisfaction in that area as well. He had a knack for certain aspects of the job. Because of his business background, he brought skills to the post — reading a budget for instance — that might be beyond the experience of many academicians. And, he had the good fortune, as he sees it, to work at FMU.

“Administration … it is rewarding in its own way,” says King. “There are things that you can do, affects you can have, that you cannot even begin to hope for in the classroom. (As an administrator) you are providing opportunities, and making paths for lots and lots of students, and you’re more likely to actually see them come to fruition. 

“Francis Marion just gives people, students, a wonderful opportunity,” says King. “I think about the kid who just kind of creeps through with 2.0 (grade point average). Not the best student from a teacher’s point of view, perhaps, but what a difference that degree, that accomplishment, makes in their lives. It opens doors. That’s rewarding. And that’s the terrific thing about FMU. You can be in the administration here and really feel that. At a bigger place, at a large research university, maybe you’re chasing papers around and building reputations. I don’t really know. Haven’t been there. But I do know that here, we’re changing student’s lives.”

King quickly points out that, from his perspective, it’s Fred Carter who has directed much of that change. 

“He’s an extraordinary man whose vision for FMU, its place in the state, is really just something to behold,” says King. “His breadth of knowledge, his abilities as an administrator … there’s not much that gets around him. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunities to work with him that I’ve had. I’m grateful for that. He’s been a good leader, and over the years as we’ve gotten to know each other more, a good friend.”

As he moves into retirement, Peter King won’t be moving. He and Annie will stay in Florence, the place they call home. King will dabble in the garden, maybe find a turtle or two, and they’ll travel to Wisconsin and San Francisco to visit their sons and their grandchildren (two, so far).

They have friends here, too, both at the university and beyond. King says one of the things he is most looking forward to is making up for lost time with some of them.

“If I’m honest, I must say that being provost is a little lonely sometimes,” says King. “There are … restrictions on social life, or at least I thought so. So, I look forward to spending more time with friends, in social settings. Yeah. … I think that will be nice.”

It sounds like a good plan.

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