Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little revealed the person behind the title during an on-stage interview with KU alumna and Dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law Deanell Reece Tacha at the Emily Taylor and Marilyn Stokstad Women’s Leadership Lecture on Monday night.
The lecture, presented by the Hall Center for the Humanities, focused on Gray-Little’s life and leadership before coming to KU, giving the public an intimate perspective of the leader.
Gray-Little described herself as an ornery child, growing up in the small river town of Washington, N.C., population 8,000. At her segregated elementary school, Gray-Little recalled her teachers arranging numerous parent conferences and enlisting the help of her older siblings to subdue the young Gray-Little.
“I remember being reprimanded and scolded, but I never remember doing anything wrong,” Gray-Little said. “Looking back, if I was in school today, I would be recognized as having a behavior disorder.”
Soon after, the young girl who would one day become an academic leader had a change of heart. Gray-Little said as she grew older, she became more like the woman she is today – driven, diligent and an avid reader.
“Around fifth grade I became studious and pious,” Gray-Little said. “My sister thought I’d become ‘insufferable.’”
In high school, she was a regular at her local library. She spent her free time studying philosophy and history before developing an interest in psychology, which she would study in college.
During her undergraduate years at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., Gray-Little lived on campus all four years and participated in debate and choir, which shaped her enthusiasm for student extracurricular activities.
“There are instances where those activities can be just as important as what you learn in the classroom,” Gray-Little said.
During her college summer breaks, she worked in New York, where she became reacquainted with Shade Little. Little grew up in her North Carolina hometown and Gray-Little had known his family all her life. The two would marry in Copenhagen while Gray-Little conducted postdoctoral research in Denmark.
“He is my partner and companion, who I depend on for friendship and support,” Gray-Little said.
Together, they moved from Denmark to North Carolina, where Gray-Little held leadership positions at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, including executive vice chancellor and provost while the couple raised a son and daughter. Gray-Little said she never had considered university administration, though she relished the idea of becoming a faculty member.
“I never thought I’d go into university administration until I was in it,” Gray-Little said, “but I was intrigued by being in a position to make things happen.”
But while considering accepting the position as chancellor at KU in 2006, Gray-Little said the desire to accomplish more led her to Kansas.
“I had thought there was something else I wanted to do,” Gray-Little said, “but I didn’t know what that was.”
While at KU, Gray-Little has faced significant challenges, most recently with the unveiling of “Bold Aspirations,” the university’s plan toward recognition as a top-tier international research university. Gray-Little said in times of change, perseverance and goal-making are necessary.
“I don’t think you get to a point in your experience where change is not a challenge,” Gray-Little said. “Making a commitment about where you want to be and doing the things to get there is not easy; it’s painful in some ways and can also lead to disaffection, and that’s hard, but not a reason not to do it.”
The lecture, which was sponsored by the Hall Center of Humanities, aims to support lectures by prominent women on women’s leadership issues. Past speakers include political commentator Donna Brazile and attorney Sarah Weddington, best known for representing “Jane Roe” in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade.