Meet Provost Isbell

Provost Charles Lee Isbell, Jr.

Charles Lee Isbell, Jr. began serving as UW-Madison’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs in August of 2023, succeeding J. Karl Scholz, who served as provost from 2019-2023. Prior to his appointment at UW-Madison, Isbell served as the dean and John P. Imlay, Jr. Chair of the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, beginning July 2019.

Provost Isbell is a computationalist, researcher, educator, and advocate for access in higher education. He received his bachelor of science degree from Georgia Tech and continued his education at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After earning his PhD from MIT in 1998, Provost Isbell joined AT&T Labs/Research. In the fall of 2002, he returned to Georgia Tech to join the faculty of the College of Computing. In 2008, he became an associate dean for the College. Four years later in 2012, he became the senior associate dean and in 2017 became the executive associate dean. In 2019, he became the fourth dean of the College.

Provost Isbell’s research interests are varied and include artificial intelligence with particular emphasis on developing technologies that can interact with systems and with humans in ways that are adaptive and collaborative, including using machine learning to model human behavior. His focus throughout his academic career has been both on research and educational reform. He is a strong believer in the role of higher education generally, and broad, research-focused universities in particular, in providing opportunities for deep engagement in what it means to be an active and productive citizen. Although he is a computationalist by training and interest, he sees the critical thinking engendered by all fields as centrally important to the mission of education. As such, both his educational efforts and his research efforts have been fundamentally interdisciplinary. Across his research career, he has worked on multiple projects: scaling machine learning algorithms to problem spaces existing in hundreds of thousands of dimensions; developing extensions to description logics; developing novel reinforcement learning techniques for balancing multiple sources of reward in social environments; state and activity discovery; light-weight coordination between multiple agents; and partial programming. The unifying theme of his work has been using machine learning to enable autonomous agents to engage in life-long learning in the presence of thousands of other intelligent agents, including humans. He has emphasized building such systems in a responsible way that involves all affected constituencies.

Provost Isbell’s work has been featured in technical collections, but also the popular media, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, and Netflix. He has won best paper awards for his technical contributions; been named a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow; and been awarded both the NSF CAREER and DARPA CSSG awards for young investigators. He is a fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAA&S). He has served on a number of advisory boards for the National Science Foundation (NSF), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Academies.

Provost Isbell has also pursued educational reform and he has continued to focus on increasing participation in higher education. He has received several teaching and service awards. He was a key developer of Threads, Georgia Tech’s structuring principle for computing curricula, which has received international attention, and has been presented in the academic and popular press, and has enabled multiple cross-university joint degrees. Isbell was also an architect for Georgia Tech’s MOOC-supported MS in Computer Science, currently reaching 12,000 students. He is the founding Executive Director for the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech, and has provided congressional testimony on both technical and educational topics.

Though born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Isbell’s earliest memory is arriving in Atlanta on a moving truck, so he thinks of himself as being from Atlanta. He and wife, Sheila D. Isbell, are parents to daughter Joni and son Cody.

Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

The provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is the deputy to the chancellor in the overall academic leadership and administrative management of the university. The provost acts as the chief executive officer of the institution in the chancellor’s absence.

Primary responsibilities of the position include oversight of all academic program and budget planning involving 13 schools and colleges; faculty and staff development, and personnel matters; as well as, oversight of the following areas: enrollment management, including undergraduate recruitment and admissions, student financial aid, and registrar; teaching and learning; diversity and inclusion; outreach, extension and public media; information technology (in collaboration with the vice chancellor for finance and administration); libraries; and international affairs.

The provost also oversees a number of specific units and programs including the Office of Data, Academic Planning and Institutional Research (DAPIR); the Office of Strategic Consulting; the Chazen Museum of Art; the Division of the Arts; the Global Health Institute; the Office of Sustainability (in collaboration with the vice chancellor for finance and administration); and the UW Press.

Major Initiatives

Major initiatives of the Office of the Provost include the establishment of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring; faculty recruitment and retention, including continued effort to ensure competitive salaries; campus climate; support for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; an increase in the number of online bachelors’ degree completion programs to meet workforce needs; and continuing efforts to increase need-based scholarship aid and assistance for first-generation students (Badger Promise and Bucky’s Tuition Promise).


Photo of Charles Isbell

Charles Lee Isbell, Jr.
Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
and Hilldale Professor

150 Bascom Hall
500 Lincoln Drive
Madison, WI 53706