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Archive for Sunday, August 19, 2012

KU recruiting pre-eminent scholars as part of Bold Aspirations strategic plan

August 19, 2012

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If you know a world-renowned professor who leads his or her field in research, there’s a position open at Kansas University. In fact, there are 12 positions.

KU has started the search for 12 outstanding, internationally known professors as part of its “Bold Aspirations” strategic plan.

“Bringing in high-profile faculty is an important part of our mission,” Provost Jeffrey Vitter said. “I would hope that, in three years, we will have them on campus.”

Vitter and other KU administrators believe these high-profile professors will boost research and innovation at the university, bringing more money and jobs to KU and Kansas. But the professors also will teach students and offer them opportunities to aid in the research.

“As a flagship university, we offer these kinds of experiences that can change peoples lives,” added Vitter.

The professor search is bolstered by a $3 million annual award from the state to help fund the professors’ salaries.

The university is in the early stage of the recruiting process and hasn’t filled any of the 12 slots. However, as an example of the kind of professors he is looking for, Vitter used Bala Subramaniam, distinguished KU professor and leader in the development of biochemicals as the director of the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysts at KU. At the center, Subramaniam, 15 other professors and 35 students research ways to turn biological products, such as corn and switch grass, into useful chemicals.

Subramaniam and the center’s research have accounted for 30 invention disclosures since 2003. Chemical companies such as Archer Daniels Midland have used some of these inventions and the center’s research. ADM is now building a lab in Lawrence to continue its work with the CEBC.

This is the beginning of Subramaniam’s vision for Kansas. He said continued research will draw chemical processing companies to the state. He thinks Kansas is in a unique position to be a national innovator, comparing it to Silicon Valley.

“That started because of the strength the university (Stanford) had. Here what we have in Kansas is strength in the agricultural-based sciences, plant-based at K-State and chemical at KU. Kansas ranks fourth in biomass available. Kansas also has gas reserves, oil reserves and wind energy potential. We can power these industries with these indigenous resources.”

Subramaniam said that, in a decade, biochemical refining could add as much as 8,000 jobs to the state and be a $7 billion industry.

This is the sort of innovation and job creation Vitter hopes for.

However, such professors will carry a price tag. Vitter estimated that it would cost about $20 million to build laboratories and purchase lab equipment for the new professors. KU is currently in the midst of a capital campaign that will help pay for this startup cost.

The other way the university will pay for the new professors is by efficiency savings based on suggestions from Huron, a private company that audited KU last year. Savings came from actions like renegotiating office supply contracts and reorganizing the Facilities and Operations office.

In the end, Vitter hopes KU will have laid the foundations to keep KU on top as a research university.

“Research is a critical ingredient to turn a good education into a great one,” he said. “That’s what we are doing.”

— Staff intern Adam Strunk can be reached at 864-7146

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