The news that Melbourne University’s Peter McPhee is retiring less than two years into his three year contract as provost raises the question: Will vice-chancellor Glyn Davis resume at least some of McPhee’s duties?

The provost job — the first position of its type in the country — was created in 2007 so Davis could continue to work “closely with the deans on external relationships with governments, corporations and other communities.”

McPhee was in effect already doing the provost job while working as deputy vice-chancellor (academic), a position he won in 2003. For example, although Davis first proffered the idea of a graduate style of university education in his 2005 paper Growing Esteem, it was McPhee who took charge of introducing the “Melbourne Model”.

Davis had time to write book reviews for The Age and The Australian and to organise Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit. It was while Davis was helping to plan the summit that many staff and students labelled him the “part time vice-chancellor”.

Since the summit Davis doesn’t appear to have written any book reviews or taken part in many photo opportunities with Rudd. Does this mean he’s going to pay more attention to the daily affairs of the university?

McPhee, who became provost in September 2007, was in effect the vice-chancellor. He was the public face of the university. On any big issue, such as the recent story about students squatting in Melbourne University-owned terrace houses, it was McPhee, the avid Collingwood supporter, who faced the media.

When questions were raised about the quality of subjects in the “new generation” undergraduate degrees, it was McPhee who had to respond. And it has been a tough job: many students and academics think the “new gen” subjects are shallow.

Behind the scenes, McPhee wasn’t able to save the arts faculty or even his own home, the history department, from funding cuts. The cuts arose from new funding rules Davis introduced, replacing a long-standing tradition of rich faculties subsidising poorer ones.

But it was McPhee who copped the flak from his former colleagues in arts. One academic told Crikey that history is still in deficit and that cutbacks have “ruined the department in terms of things like postgraduate numbers, which are much lower than they were five years ago.”

McPhee, who has been at Melbourne University for more than 20 years, has announced his retirement at the relatively young age (by university standards) of 60. He’ll be leaving the old gate-keeper’s cottage on Grattan Street, which was his office.

The rumours are already flying as to who’ll be next to occupy the cottage: one front-runner is psychology professor Pip Pattison, the popular president of the academic board.

Regardless of who succeeds McPhee, the question remains: with a provost fulfilling the functions traditionally performed by a vice-chancellor, what does Glyn Davis actually do?