Professional Spotlight: Bernadette Gray-Little

Chancellor, University of Kansas

| 2017 Q2 |
 Professional Spotlight

Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little

Aside from providing education, what is the University’s most important commodity or service?

Scholarship and research are the other important contributions of a public flagship research university like KU. Teaching and research provide a service to society by providing an educated citizenry and by making discoveries that have the capacity to improve our national and global society. So many of the ideas, cures and inventions that ensure our future well-being come from universities, and KU is proud to be a part of that tradition.

What is the University’s most important priority?

Our most important mission is to educate leaders, and one of our most important priorities is to work to improve our students’ success. As we seek to educate these leaders, we accomplish this in a number of different ways and have undertaken initiatives to improve the way we teach and the way we keep students engaged in their education.

What have been some of the most important aspects of your personal success? The University’s?

While KU has grown in remarkable ways and elevated our national stature during my time here, I would like to mention three accomplishments in particular. First, we have overhauled our admissions and enrollment-management process and, as a result, have now experienced five straight years of freshman class growth, even as the population of Kansas high school seniors has declined. In 2016, we welcomed our most academically talented freshman class ever, as well.

Second, we accomplished a successful capital fund-raising campaign, Far Above, that raised $1.66 billion for the University. This is a testament to our donors, and their generosity will elevate KU for decades to come.

Also, we have undertaken a once-in-a-generation upgrade of our facilities and infrastructure that will transform our university, especially in the area of science. Our new Integrated Science Building within the Central District of campus will add 280,000 square feet of state-of-the-art space for our science fields, closely integrating research and the classroom. This is in addition to the Earth, Energy and Environment Center comprising Slawson and Ritchie halls. These much-needed additions will replace classrooms and labs in the aging Malott Hall, which was built before we put a man on the moon.

How many people do you work with, serve, interact with on a daily basis and are responsible to or for?

Rarely are two days alike. Interacting with people is a critical part of the job. I regularly meet with faculty, students, administrators and staff across KU in addition to many people outside the University with an interest in our activities. In many ways, however, the role is even broader than that. We have five campuses, and our university outreach efforts affect every county in Kansas. The University is a large organization within this region, and, as a result, I also regularly interact with business leaders and public officials. While the chancellor technically reports to the Kansas Board of Regents, the position is ultimately responsible to all the people of Kansas, and I try to approach each day with that in mind.

 Professional Spotlight

Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little

How do you, and the University, make a positive impact on the Lawrence community?

The Lawrence community is an ideal setting for the University of Kansas. The city and the University have grown up together for more than a century and a half. The University, town and county have a strong partnership through the Bioscience and Technology Business Center (BTBC) on our West Campus. That facility serves as an incubator for new businesses in the community and is just one part of the economic engine of the University from which the community benefits. Also, residents can enjoy a number of university activities, including guest speakers, musical events, museums and sporting events.

What do you see as your personal responsibility and the University’s responsibility to the community?

First, we have to be a good citizen. We take seriously our contribution to the quality of life in our community, and through economic development, we can directly benefit the community and grow together. Truthfully, things that positively or negatively affect the community also have a direct effect on the University, as well, and our ability to recruit talented faculty and students to KU. So we’re often after the same goals.

What would you change about working with businesses in Lawrence?

During the past eight years, the University has become more directly involved in the business community here in Lawrence. Through partnerships like the Bioscience and Technology Business Center at KU, we have strengthened existing ties and created new ones. More than 40 companies are housed in the BTBC business incubator, totaling more than 215 private-sector jobs. By working together, we can have an impact not just here in Lawrence but well beyond our city limits. I believe communication between businesses and the University is better and more open today, and I would like to see that continue.

Why did you choose education? What inspires you? Is there a specific thing, person or incident?

One could say, really, that education chose me rather than the other way around. As early as my high school years, I was taken by the opportunity to learn and to know as many things as possible. I wanted to see how things worked and learn as much as I possibly could. When I first went away to college, there wasn’t a field that I couldn’t imagine myself majoring in. And now, by extension, to help facilitate that process in others has been very rewarding throughout my career.

What is the biggest challenge you feel the University faces?

First, we must have stable funding. Absent that, much of what we are trying to do falls apart. So that is our biggest challenge. The effects of unstable or inadequate funding are profound, ultimately eroding morale and commitment, which are critical to everything we do. Related to that issue, KU and other universities across the nation are confronting questions about whether higher education in this country is truly a public good, not solely a private one, and therefore, to what extent the public should bear the responsibility for its support. Beyond funding, we are challenged to continue to address social issues like diversity and sexual assault, which cannot be addressed solely with more money. No single action will help us to accomplish our goals in these areas, so we need to remain systematic and comprehensive in our efforts.

How can the University navigate the challenges of the future?

The benefits that research universities provide to our society—educated leaders, healthier communities and discoveries that change lives and create jobs—have only grown over time. Leaders at KU and other universities will have to strongly advocate for what we do in order to continue to change lives. We also will have to push ourselves to step outside our comfort zone and accept new ideas and new strategies that will help us accomplish our mission.

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