KU cites progress in hiring ‘Foundation Professors’

It’s been about a year now since Kansas University launched an effort to recruit 12 high-profile researchers from other institutions, and no hires have yet been announced.

But that does not mean progress hasn’t been made, KU leaders say.

“We made a lot of progress in the sense that these kinds of recruitments involve an awful lot, and they take awhile,” KU Provost Jeff Vitter said. “And we want to make sure we do it right.”

Last fall, KU began its search for 12 “Foundation Professors”: researchers among the world leaders in their fields who could help boost KU’s profile and solidify its spot in the selective Association of American Universities. The effort is to be paid for in part by an annual $3 million increase in state funding, approved in 2012.

A year later, Vitter says people at KU shouldn’t have to wait too much longer to hear some news on that front. The university should announce its first few Foundation Professor hires during the 2013-14 academic year, he said, and the goal is to make three to four hires per year from then on.

These are not typical job searches. Rather than inviting applicants, KU officials are searching out candidates.

“They aren’t necessarily looking to move,” said Danny Anderson, dean of KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “And they aren’t necessarily able to move immediately. There’s a whole process of exploring the opportunity.”

The types of research leaders that KU is recruiting may have complex operations surrounding them at their current institutions: labs or other facilities, ongoing grants and projects, assistants and other faculty.

To draw them, officials will likely need to arrange for similar things to be provided at KU. That can take time to negotiate, and it will be costly.

The annual $3 million in state funds will pay the salaries of the Foundation Professors and perhaps allow for some research assistants. But the hires will also require somewhere around $20 million in additional startup costs, Vitter said, most of which should come from private fundraising.

With that much at stake, these hires take time to get right.

“The important thing is to truly make transformational hires,” Vitter said.

Anderson said this summer he was actively recruiting one Foundation Professor for the College, and he and other officials would be focused on other candidates soon, as well.

“We’re at the stage of really digging in and moving forward with some of those recruitments,” Anderson said. “We’re going to be as focused and dedicated to getting those hires made this year as we can.”

Another unusual quality of these hires is that they probably won’t necessarily be tied to academic departments. Instead, Vitter said, they’ll focus on “strategic initiatives,” areas where KU is historically strong and where there’s a need in the economies of Kansas and the nation.

Those areas could include biorefining, using materials such as food and natural gas in the production of plastics and other chemicals; water resources; alternative energies; “big data” and analytics, such as in education; and the development of vaccines for infectious diseases.

Some Foundation Professors will be at the center of “cluster hires,” with KU hiring other faculty to assist in the same areas of research. Current faculty members are likely to be part of those clusters, as well.

“We have great faculty at KU,” Vitter said. “That’s why we’re seeking to have even more great faculty at KU.”

KU began a Bold Aspirations Visitor and Lecture Series in 2012-13 in part to make connections leading to possible Foundation Professor hires, Vitter said, as well as to help current faculty connect to research leaders who could open opportunities for them.

Visitors in the series in the past year included a computer scientist from Columbia University, a child-welfare researcher from the University of Washington and an economist from the University of California-Berkeley.

The hope for the new researchers, Vitter said, is that they will help produce knowledge that could help the world and contribute to Kansas’ economy, while also preserving the AAU membership that he and other leaders say is all-important for KU.

“It is more than just a mark of quality,” Vitter said. “It’s a drawing power that brings to KU tremendous faculty and students. And it’s a drawing power for corporations.”