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.”