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Archive for Tuesday, April 6, 2010

KU’s new provost known for his work ethic, interest in having a little fun

Incoming provost Jeff Vitter is pictured Tuesday, April 6, 2010 inside Strong Hall at Kansas University. Vitter will take over as provost on July 1, 2010.

Incoming provost Jeff Vitter is pictured Tuesday, April 6, 2010 inside Strong Hall at Kansas University. Vitter will take over as provost on July 1, 2010.

April 6, 2010

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Kansas University will find Jeff Vitter, its new provost-to-be, to be a hard-working successful administrator, but also a warm, affable personality, according to those who know him well.

“I’ll tell you when I knew he’d be successful,” said Owen Astrachan, a professor of computer science at Duke University, where Vitter was department chairman.

A group of people had taken him out to lunch when he interviewed for the post, Astrachan recalled. Vitter spotted someone eating fried oysters. When he asked for some, he was told that they weren’t on the menu, and that the other patron only ordered them some because he was a special guest who frequented the restaurant.

“Jeff said, ‘I’m kind of a special guy, and I’d like some oysters, too,’” Astrachan said.

He got the oysters.

The fifth child of six, Vitter grew up in the New Orleans area, where several of his siblings still live. Many have gone on to prominence as well, including his brother, David Vitter, a Republican U.S. senator.

Vitter demurred when asked his own political preferences, saying he typically eschewed political party labels. He described himself as a political moderate and a fiscal conservative.

An accomplished computer science researcher, the 54-year-old Vitter said he’s most proud of his achievements in dealing with new ways to examine voluminous amounts of data. Some computer systems in the past couldn’t have been analyzed without running into a massive bottleneck. It was like building a 50-story building to house the card catalog for a 10-story library, he said.

Vitter’s work on algorithms in a sense has helped take the card catalog down to something like three stories, and added much more information on the cards beyond just a book’s title and author, he said.

Vic Hunter, a Milwaukee business owner, worked with Vitter as the leader of an advisory group for the Purdue University’s College of the Sciences. As the college’s dean, Vitter tapped Hunter to lead the group because he wanted input from someone who graduated from the sciences but was working in business. Hunter’s company, Hunter Business Group, LLC, is a marketing and consulting company.

Astrachan and Hunter both recalled Vitter as a likable, outgoing person who often brought groups of people into his home and entertained.

Hunter in particular recalled being invited to a Mardi Gras party once at the Vitters’ home, with specific instructions to wear a purple or gold shirt.

Thinking that parties in northern Indiana in the middle of February probably wouldn’t amount to much, Hunter said he expected a gathering of about a dozen people.

“We showed up and there were 250 people there,” including the provost and president of the university, and everyone enjoyed themselves, Hunter recalled. “Later, then the people that didn’t come, they said they wished they had.”

Hunter also praised Vitter for bringing tools from the business world into academia. For example, he took a new approach to hiring faculty at Purdue that went beyond looking at resumes, to incorporating behavioral profiles to get a sense of whether people’s personalities would be a good match for the university.

He also developed employee loyalty mechanisms to try to identify ways to retain talented people and keep them energized about their role.

“It seems so simple and understood in the business community, but in the academic community, it was breathtaking,” Hunter said.

Nearly everyone who has dealt with Vitter has praised his planning skills — as provost at Texas A&M University he helped develop and maintain a master planning process, and has focused on that as a way for KU to get faculty and others involved and engaged in new innovative ideas.

Already in town for a visit this week, house-hunting and visiting with KU officials, Vitter will take over as KU’s top academic officer in July.

He’s familiar with many areas of Kansas — his wife Sharon is a KU graduate and still has family in Miami County. During visits there and in other areas, he’s become somewhat familiar with the state and its people.

“I think that the people just are always very friendly and down-to-earth,” Vitter said, and humble almost to a fault sometimes. “I think, frankly, we need to tell the world about what great things are happening at KU.”

Comments

gccs14r 4 years ago

So does anyone else think the new guy looks like Tim Robbins?

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beawolf 4 years ago

"-yet there was no mention of the new dean of the School of Music.Wassup wit dat?"..... Various degrees of separation. It would be like if you and Madonna decide to get married at the same time. She get's the front page, you get 1 inch on page 10.

Other than the Chancellor these are the two most prominent positions.

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JaighHok 4 years ago

I was surprised to see the giant front-page spread about the "two" new leaders at KU--the new provost and new dean of the College--yet there was no mention of the new dean of the School of Music. Wassup wit dat?

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Sean Livingstone 4 years ago

"remember_username (anonymous) says… Wait...There's a Stripper Party? Does the party platform have a pole?"

This is call marketing. I wouldn't attract your attention if I didn't write that... would I? Well, just like what you said, we need risk takers, and if the new Provost can accept the Stripper Party, he'll probably create miracle here at KU.

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MyName 4 years ago

@gccs14r

learn reading comprehension:

They weren't a "perk", they were specially requested by someone who know the owner or the chef. But if the restaurant bought enough oysters for more than one person to have them, then there's nothing wrong with trying to order a plate for yourself. Just like there would have been nothing wrong with the waiter saying "I'm really sorry, you can't have any."

And what people who are complaining about labels don't seem to understand is that sometimes your political affiliation has absolutely nothing to do with how well you do your job. So if he doesn't want to talk about labels until he's actually lived in the state and looked at the politicians, then good for him. And if he doesn't want to talk about who he votes for, that's fine too.

@remember_username:

I don't agree with your claim that you want a "risk taker" in charge of operations. The way I see it, it's the job of the Chancellor (aka the CEO) to do the risk taker vision side of things, and the job of the Provost (aka the COO) to do the down-to-earth management side of things. But in any case, I would much rather have someone who is smart and knows how to think analytically, which is what a science degree and background requires, then someone who is an ivory tower egotist who doesn't have to think about practical problems.

Of course, the guy hasn't started work yet, so he could turn out to not be all that great. Who knows.

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gccs14r 4 years ago

Not to mention the sense of entitlement. The oysters weren't his, they were a perk for someone who earned them.

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toe 4 years ago

Too bad he will not be able to clean up Athletics.

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remember_username 4 years ago

Wait...There's a Stripper Party? Does the party platform have a pole?

All kidding aside K.U. provost is going to be a really tough job over the next couple of years. I'm surprised they found anybody willing to take the position. I'll wait and see if this will be a good fit, but I suspect it will be more of the same. K.U. needs a risk taker and I don't think Dr. Vitter is that kind of administrator. Plus the "Loyalty Mechanisms" sounds a little worrisome.

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whats_going_on 4 years ago

Why does everything have to revolve around politics around here...jeezus we could take a story about dandelions and turn it into Repub vs. Dem

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Sean Livingstone 4 years ago

Whether he's a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Socialist, Green, or Stripper Party, no one needs to care. But first and foremost, he needs to know that science is science, and religions should be taken out from science, skepticism is encouraged but cannot be used to impede the development of sciences, and opinions don't matter. Faculties come from different walks of life, where liberal arts/social sciences tend to be more liberal, engineering in the middle, and business/law schools more conservative. It's a fine line to walk. This is not just a KU issue, it's an issue on all campuses around the world, not even just in the US. Climate change skeptics work side by side with climate change believers, and sometimes even collaborate. This is the beauty of universities. Can those religious leaders do the same thing? This is an academic institution. Let the new provost runs his show.

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Paul R Getto 4 years ago

" There are quite a few of us who are Independents and consider themselves politically moderate and fiscally conservative." === Good point, Wolf. I'll gladly fly the flag of that tribe. The parties are pretty much obsolete and both are owned by similar interests. I long for the day I can vote for another Republican like Bob or Nancy. They need to free themselves of certain elements before that can happen. I also agree we need to watch out for higher education and hope the cutters don't continue their ways.

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beawolf 4 years ago

"Look, If you're a Republican, admit it. If you're a Democrat, admit it."... Perhaps you should retake Politics 101. There are quite a few of us who are Independents and consider themselves politically moderate and fiscally conservative.

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1983Hawk 4 years ago

It was an important for Hyland to ask him about his political preferences and affiliations for a number of reasons, some of them obvious and some of them not. He was raised in a powerful and accomplished family in New Orleans with conservative political leanings, and his brother, a sitting US Senator -- with a recent spectacular sex scandal -- remains fiercely loyal and dogmatic to the right wing of the Republican party. Our new provost himself comes to us by way of Texas A&M, one of the flagships of the Bush dynasty. So when higher ed funding is on the chopping block over the next few years, how aggressive does anyone think Vitter will be in going toe-to-toe with Governor Sam the Enlightened and the anti-intellectual crowd in Topeka who hate the public sector in general, hate higher ed in particular, and hate KU most of all? That's why it was a relevant question. Good job, Andy.

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yankeevet 4 years ago

Good article; interesting.............

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Paul R Getto 4 years ago

Welcome to Lawrence, Jeff. I'm sure they had an award-winning newspaper where you were before, so you'll get used to the sniping and snarkiness found on the reader blogs of this world-class media empire. Good luck, best wishes, and Rock Chalk!

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SuperSnot 4 years ago

Fabulous! They've picked a boring data-mouse to more or less run the university! He was probably the cheapest option! He ought to take KU back into the 20th century. Snore.

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Kookamooka 4 years ago

How funny. He's middle of the road. That's fine. Had he proudly hailed one party or the other, he would probably have been disqualified. The proof of his level of affiliation will be in the pudding. KU is a tricky, tricky place. Ultra deep blue hill surrounded by miles and miles and miles of red. (And the hill isn't really that blue anymore. Hemmenway made sure of that.)

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ahyland 4 years ago

texburgh,

In this story, I attempted to paint a picture that shows the kind of person KU can expect in its new provost. His political affiliation is just one simple brushstroke of the overall whole. Speaking generally, one doesn't find too many conservatives in academic administrative positions, and I thought it interesting to ask him about it.

I think it's important to note I'm not trying to indicate that either Republicans or Democrats would make better provosts (the same way that I'm not trying to indicate people who throw Mardi Gras parties would be good or bad provosts). I'm just trying to let members of the KU community know a little bit about the man who'll be making some pretty important decisions in the time to come.

Andy Hyland KU reporter

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texburgh 4 years ago

"Vitter demurred when asked his own political preferences, saying he typically eschewed political party labels. He described himself as a political moderate and a fiscal conservative."

In other words, A Republican. Perhaps a little out of touch with the right-wing extremist neo-Nazi Kansas Republican party of Kris Kobach, but a Republican nonetheless.

Look, If you're a Republican, admit it. If you're a Democrat, admit it. Either that or tell the reporter that the question is irrelevant and move on.

Oh, and reporter, what was the relevance of the question? My dad is right winger - so do you need to ask about my politics? Stick to the story, please.

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