Among non-faculty staff at KU, “emeritus” reserved for a select few

As nine deans and interim deans have led Kansas University’s largest academic unit, Jolene Fairchild has been there.

Fairchild worked for 37 years in KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, starting as an administrative assistant and ultimately becoming the budget officer for a unit that now spends more than $100 million every year.

She retired Wednesday, however, and now she has a new title: budget officer emeritus. Emeritus, the past tense of a Latin word meaning “to serve out one’s term,” is an honorary title given upon retirement.

At KU, nearly every professor who retires with at least 10 years of service and at age 55 or older becomes a “professor emeritus.” But among non-faculty employees at KU, emeritus has been reserved for a select few.

KU keeps no list of these emeritus employees, but in the past year at least three longtime professional staff members have retired and earned an emeritus title that will stay with them forever.

Each of the three served for decades at KU, and the people who worked with them say they knew as much about the university as just about anyone. And though they were not professors, in some ways they may be even tougher to replace.

Jolene Fairchild, who retired on Wednesday, came to the CLAS in the mid-1970s as an administrative assistant in the Division of Biology.

She climbed from there to become an accountant, and she eventually took charge of the college’s whole budget.

And she did that despite the fact that she did not have a college degree, said Erin Spiridigliozzi, an assistant dean in the college who’s worked with Fairchild for nearly a quarter-century.

“She has a high-school diploma, and she has singlehandedly taken on one of the largest budgets at KU,” Spiridigliozzi said. For her replacement, the college set a minimum requirement for a bachelor’s degree, with a graduate degree preferred.

“She has this uncanny ability to explain budgetary matters to people, so that they don’t feel, you know, incompetent or stupid,” Spiridigliozzi said.

That’s been her job as each new dean or associate dean has come into the CLAS office: to explain how money goes in and out of the unit.

Fairchild learned of her emeritus honor at a retirement reception last month.

“I didn’t know that it was even possible for staff to receive emeritus status,” Fairchild said, “so this honor came as a complete surprise, and I was deeply touched.”

CLAS officials believe Fairchild is the first non-faculty employee from the college to earn an emeritus title, which requires a nomination from an employee’s supervisor and approval by the KU chancellor.

Janet Riley’s KU career stretched even longer, more than 42 years, before she retired in January with the title of associate director emeritus of KU’s budget office.

She started in the student housing office and moved on to academic affairs, the Office of the Provost and finally the central budget office, accumulating more knowledge about KU’s inner workings at each stop.

After a while, she became someone people throughout the university went to with questions about how things worked.

Richard McKinney, KU’s budget director and an associate vice provost, nominated Riley for emeritus status. He also worked with Fairchild.

“Both of these women had learned about the university from the ground up, so that they could see different perspectives,” McKinney said.

Riley enjoyed working for her alma mater, but it wasn’t easy. She met the night janitors when she stayed as late as 2 a.m. when budgets were due, and she met basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain when he returned to KU in 1998. (She barely came up to his waist.)

“It’s sort of a special recognition for extended distinguished service,” Riley said of her emeritus title. “To have that designation, it meant a lot to me.”

Jeannette Johnson.

Whether called executive vice chancellor or provost, the No. 2 academic official on KU’s campus often has gone to the same person for help over the past 25-plus years: Jeannette Johnson.

After starting as a receptionist in the English department, Johnson became an assistant to the executive vice chancellor. Since then, that title has changed to provost, but Johnson has helped all eight people who’ve held it.

By 2011, she had become so familiar with KU’s many-layered university policies that she was made director of the university’s policy office. She retired in January after 37 years of service.

She’s served as a reference or sounding board for many a faculty member or administrator, though she credits a number of other KU workers with helping her out.

“There have been a huge number of very dedicated people who have just worked to get the job done,” Johnson said, “and their titles don’t always reflect the importance of the work they do or their commitment to their jobs.”

Ed Meyen, a professor of special education who worked with Johnson both as dean of the School of Education and as KU’s executive vice chancellor, said she and other long-serving, hard-working professional staffers fill a vital role for any research university like KU.

You can hire another professor who knows about his field of study already. But you just can’t hire another Jeannette Johnson with decades’ worth of knowledge and expertise about how KU works.

“It’s hard to replace those kinds of people,” Meyen said, “because you have to grow them.”