August 23, 2010


David McKinney/University Relations

Jeff Vitter, provost and executive vice chancellor, attends his first faculty convocation. Vitter has set out his goals as provost and discusses challenges and opportunities facing KU.

A community of excellence

New provost Jeff Vitter sets down vision for making KU a world-class institution

Why did you to come to KU?

I came to KU for a number of reasons. My passion is higher education, and I wanted to serve in a leadership position at a top-tier institution. I was especially drawn to Chancellor Gray-Little’s aspiration to make KU a community of excellence focused on our core mission of learning, research, and public impact. From talking with the search committee, KU felt like a very good match for my background in strategic planning and my experiences in facilitating innovative programs. And my wife, Sharon, is a graduate of KU’s School of Pharmacy and a native of Kansas, so KU already felt a little like coming home.

What is your impression of KU after your first few weeks on the job?

KU is a welcoming place that is ready for stable leadership. Despite some challenging budget cuts, the university community is guardedly optimistic that we can begin to move forward in some key strategic areas, and the sooner we jump into action the better. I started at KU during the summer so that I could get settled when life is a bit slower on campus, and now I’m looking forward to the weeks ahead as the semester picks up pace. I am impressed by the commitment of the faculty and staff I’ve worked with and know that I will come to appreciate that attitude of commitment even more in the weeks and months ahead.

How will you help Chancellor Gray-Little achieve her goals of improving student retention and the number of students that graduate in four years?

Educating students is our primary mission. I have been charged to lead a strategic planning process that will implement the chancellor’s Charting the Future recommendations. One part of the planning process will specifically address retention and graduation. It will be a university-wide effort with key players being the academic units, Student Success, student leadership, and our office. Chris Haufler, chair and professor of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, has agreed to work as my special adviser to oversee the implementation of the retention and graduation recommendations.

More broadly, our planning effort will look to re-energize the undergraduate curriculum by taking an outcomes-based focus. We will encourage students to take advantage of all that KU offers by enhancing opportunities for study abroad and for experiential learning both inside and outside the classroom. KU’s status as a research university offers a special advantage to our students. I’ve observed that the experience of doing research with a faculty member or participating in an internship can be the difference between a good education and a great one. These experiences make what students learn in the classroom come alive and give them perspectives and maturity highly sought by employers and graduate schools.

What are your top goals for your tenure as provost?

As provost, I see myself as a facilitator for making the most of the great capabilities we have collectively at KU — especially to energize our learning environment, to push the boundaries of knowledge and to do so for the benefit of our state and society at large. Spurring dialog about how to do so is my passion. Planning is then the natural next step of understanding what possibilities exist so that we can make intelligent choices to realize our ambitions and have tangible impact.

We have important challenges ahead of us. My goal is to facilitate the conversation we must have as a university about our common aspirations and hopes. The chancellor is very clear about her priorities and I share her urgency that they be addressed. I would be very pleased if KU is able to accomplish the following goals while I am provost.

• Energize the learning environment and in so doing significantly increase student retention and graduation rates.

• Expand the profile of excellence in our research, scholarship, and creative activities.

• Successfully build synergies to advance the university’s mission of learning, research, and public impact. They include synergies

o with the community and the public at large

o with study abroad and global faculty partnerships

o with innovative multidisciplinary collaborations

o with the KU Medical Center and Edward Campus

o with external partners

o with our alumni and friends

Perhaps most meaningful of all, I would like to see an ever increasing sense of pride among Jayhawks for their university.

How will you help guide the university through the current economic challenges it faces?

The entire nation is holding its collective breath wondering when the economic news will be better — KU is no different. I will be working closely with the deans and KU’s budget and financial leadership to model scenarios for the future that anticipate changes in state appropriations, the economy, and enrollment trends. Our planning efforts are focused on identifying priorities and realizing opportunities that will position us ever stronger in the years ahead. At the same time, they will help us determine what we can no longer afford to do. We are working with the Kansas Board of Regents to streamline legislative mandates, and we are streamlining administrative procedures. We are not the only university facing challenging times ahead and fortunately, KU is in a better place than many other institutions. We have alumni and endowment associations that are the envy of many schools. The Jayhawk nation has always generously supported KU. I am confident that we can build a bright future by tackling our challenges head on and focusing on a compelling vision for the university.

How will you apply your experience as a faculty member and researcher to your role as provost?

It is through being a faculty member that I have become a champion for the noble cause that is higher education. Academia is exciting to me because it is the world of ideas and possibilities. The sense of discovery, when it happens, can’t be matched. It changes lives. I also understand the strains that faculty are under to teach well, engage in new discovery, and be productive members of the KU community. As provost, I intend to keep in close contact with the faculty both through formal and informal channels.

As a computer scientist, my scholarship is about how to find solutions — we call them algorithms. My research is primarily focused on the design and analysis of algorithms for problems that involve massive amount of data. And what could be more useful to a provost than experience in finding solutions for big problems? Those similarities are what got me interested in higher education administration. While I was department chair at Duke, I saw how coordinated efforts could make a real difference in the lives of students. I decided to complement my practical experience as department chair with the foundations provided by an MBA, and I had the opportunity to attend one of the world’s best MBA programs in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. I have found the experience invaluable in my administrative roles.

What role can staff play in making KU a better university?

Staff play an absolutely crucial role at KU, and I think they deserve wide recognition for the many positive contributions they make. Staff can be the best advocates for KU. Either directly or indirectly, their work supports our teaching and research activities, and without them we could not realize our core mission. Staff are the connectors in our enterprise. They are advisers who can tell us what students are concerned about, where we need to pay attention to our buildings, and how we can manage more effectively. For that reason, their active participation will be important for our planning activities.

How has your experience at other universities prepared you to help lead KU?

In the same way that many have benefited from learning new languages and cultures, I have benefited by having leadership roles in a variety of universities. They give me an appreciation for both the differences and the similarities in the challenges universities face. Participating in planning and constructing core academic initiatives in other universities has helped me evaluate what might resonate at KU. My experience at private universities has shown me the value of entrepreneurial thinking, while at public universities I’ve gained a full appreciation for the important role that universities play in advancing society.

David McKinney/University Relations

Jeff Vitter speaks at faculty convocation, kicking off his first year at KU.

One thing I learned before coming to KU is that there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations when getting to know and appreciate my new university home. I have begun setting up visits to faculty meetings in all the academic departments and research centers as well as to the units that support the academic mission. I will have regular interactions with student leadership. I plan to spend a lot of time listening and getting to know the concerns and aspirations of the KU community.

What is the pinnacle, thus far, of your career of academic leadership?

The pinnacle of my career thus far is becoming provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of Kansas — of course.

What role do you think KU should play in service to the state, nation and world, and how will you ensure KU fills that role?

KU has a fundamental mission to serve the public, and it does so in an exemplary way through educating new generations of students and by advancing the boundaries of knowledge. The research mission is primarily what distinguishes KU from four-year colleges. Research and discovery form the cornerstone of the innovations that drive our economy and society. For example, in my own field of computing, much of the increase in U.S. economic productivity since 1995 has been attributed to information technology. Yet many of the underlying advances that enabled those innovations — such as the Internet and networking — were made decades earlier, often without any inkling of their future potential. For that reason, it is of primary importance for KU to engage in basic fundamental research and scholarship in order to provide the foundational understanding that will enable advances decades to come.

At the same time, we should be ever vigilant to nurture those intellectual advances that can have more immediate impact. We have several wonderful examples at KU of such scholarship. For example, Steve Barlow and his team have invented a way to test whether babies born prematurely are developing the necessary sucking mechanism they will need for feeding, and if not, it helps them acquire it. University Distinguished Professor Val Stella’s pharmaceutical research has led to drugs to treat epilepsy and AIDS, as well as to an agent that safely dissolves drugs for injection. Arienne Dwyer’s work on the languages of inner Asia gives her unique perspectives to advise national and international organizations on matters of China and central Asia and language vitality.

In our planning activities we will be addressing ways to facilitate research and scholarship — both fundamental for the long term and applied for the shorter term. First and foremost I want to promote a broad view of scholarship that recognizes multiple avenues for creativity and innovation.

Will you continue to hold faculty responsibilities such as teaching and research?

As provost at KU, my attention is on being the chief academic officer. But I think it’s also valuable to be grounded in the academy. So, yes, I will continue my research as a faculty member in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, primarily by working with a postdoctoral assistant in the Information and Telecommunication Technology Center. In my current research, I’m investigating ways to operate directly upon compressed representations of data, yet still achieve fast query time. I was just awarded a new three-year research grant from the National Science Foundation, which will extend my funding streak at NSF to 33 years. In terms of teaching, I am not planning to teach a regular course but will have opportunities to interact with students in various venues.

What is the most pressing issue for faculty right now, and how do you plan to address it?

A very pressing issue for faculty members, if not the most pressing, is how to do more with less. Budget cuts have stressed already limited funds for teaching, graduate student support, travel, IT, and infrastructure in general. Many faculty and staff lines have been cut. Challenging times such as these often spur organizations to step back and reassess priorities. We are doing that reassessment in our current planning activities. We seek to examine why we do things and not just assume that the way we’ve always done them is the best way. The three task forces have begun the process, and we will be engaging the entire KU community to formulate a strategic plan of action to move the institution forward.

What experience do you have in furthering a university’s research profile?

I have of course participated as a researcher myself, and I love doing so. But the real contribution I can make as an administrator is to facilitate the contribution of others. At Texas A&M, I led a college-wide planning for seeding multidisciplinary research efforts. The college deans, faculty groups and I worked together to devise seven transparent criteria that formed the basis for an open, faculty-led, university-wide white paper process — involving over 1,400 individuals, 111 white papers on multidisciplinary topics and an all-day retreat in April 2009 that drew 750 participants. Eight themes are initially being funded. As dean of science at Purdue, one of my most satisfying achievements was the COALESCE initiative, in which the college hired several dozen stellar faculty oriented around crosscutting priorities. I was also very much involved in Discovery Park, Purdue’s innovative set of interdisciplinary centers. I co-led the planning effort for what became the Cyber Center in Discovery Park, and I helped initiate efforts on multimillion dollar projects, including what ultimately led to a $25 million NSF Science and Technology Center.

How do you plan to help KU maximize its research potential?

KU gains a tremendous amount of prestige as a member of the Association of American Universities, a select group of 63 preeminent research universities in the U.S. and Canada. As an AAU institution, we are committed to advancing the frontier of knowledge through our research, scholarship, and performance activities. The AAU measures the research activity of its members by various metrics, and KU tends to be at the lower end. For example, for over a decade, the number of faculty members at KU with active or pending research grants has hovered at only 50 percent. A large part of our planning activities at KU, starting with the task force report this past spring, will be focused on boosting our research excellence and productivity. And a key part of that effort will focus on traditional forms of scholarship — such as books and professional journals — in top venues.

I talked a little earlier about valuing creativity in many forms, especially those forms that can have direct bearing on the world around us. Some call this type of scholarship community engaged scholarship or scholarly engagement. It is scholarship in its key elements: advancing knowledge, application of scholarly methods, solid foundations, peer-reviewed quality assurance, and dissemination. What distinguishes community engaged scholarship from more traditional scholarship is its direct connection or involvement with the community, whether at the local, state, national, or global level. Examples can include

• Entrepreneurship — developing companies or products to improve human life

• K–12 partnerships — promoting teaching methodologies and programs to excite students about learning

• innovative university-community projects

• social entrepreneurship

I hope that by broadening how we define scholarship, we will more fully value these tremendously exciting areas of investigation. There are two big potential advantages of so doing: First, I would hope that many faculty members not currently active in scholarship will be drawn to the challenging problems that arise in these venues and re-engage in the research and funding enterprise. And second, through these deep contributions to society, KU will have an even greater positive impact on the world around us.

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