A conversation with David Dillon, KU chancellor search committee chairman

Board of Regents expected to announce, approve committee members this week

David B. Dillon, Kroger chairman and chief executive officer, listens to a shareholder speak at the Kroger shareholders meeting in Cincinnati Thursday June 25, 2009. (AP Photo/Tom Uhlman)

This is not David Dillon’s first time on a University of Kansas chancellor search committee.

As KU student body president in the early 1970s, Dillon served on the search committee that led to the hiring of KU’s 13th chancellor, Archie Dykes. Dykes took the job following a tumultuous few years on campus that saw civil rights and Vietnam War protests and the resignation of Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers.

Now Dillon, 65 and the retired chairman and CEO of The Kroger Co., is chairman of the chancellor search committee tasked with vetting candidates to replace current Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, who has announced she’ll step down after this school year.

Dillon said he learned a lot about himself, society and differing points of view during his years as a KU student. As student body president he also met with Chalmers and Chalmers’ brief successor, Chancellor Raymond Nichols, weekly, he said, giving him good insight into the university.

“That was a time of significant unrest around the world, a lot of that revolved around the Vietnam War… It also was a time of significant sensitivity to the Civil Rights movement,” Dillon said. “It was really hugely valuable.”

David Dillon

Dillon said he anticipated applying that experience to the current KU chancellor search process.

He’ll also draw from two key principles he said have guided him in his business career.

“I want to have and desire to have around me people who have high values,” Dillon said. “We identified clearly the values at Kroger, and we tried to make sure we lived up to those. And the times we didn’t, we tried to ‘fess up to those and do better.”

Dillon said he would also apply his skills at helping a group of people articulate and achieve its goals.

“I believe in group wins, I don’t believe in individual wins,” he said.

For the KU chancellor search, that means assembling a committee that is an expression of the larger university community, helping members express what they want to see in a chancellor and selecting a small pool of the best candidates to present to the Kansas Board of Regents, he said.

“I never was, never wanted to be, never thought of myself as a one-man show,” Dillon said.

“The composition of the committee is important, because it will help reflect the various vantage points that need to be expressed in selecting a chancellor.”

Dillon said he expects the job of KU chancellor will draw internal and external candidates, from across the country and possibly internationally.

“Kansas as a state and the University of Kansas as an institution are really held high in esteem,” he said.

The Board of Regents is scheduled to announce and vote on KU chancellor search committee members during its regular meeting Wednesday in Topeka.

The Board voted in November to appoint Dillon as head of the chancellor search committee. At the same meeting the Board also voted to hire the firm of R. William Funk & Associates as search consultant and formally announced that the search process would be closed, meaning names of applicants and finalists will not be publicly shared.

Dillon, originally from Hutchinson, attended KU from 1969 to 1973.

At KU he was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity. Prior to becoming student body president, Dillon said he ran for Student Senate and served as chairman of the body’s finance and auditing committee.

After earning his degree in accounting and business administration from KU, he went on to earn a law degree from Southern Methodist University.

The company he ultimately led, Kroger, based in Cincinnati, employs more than 400,000 associates serving customers in more than 3,500 supermarkets and other stores, according to Dillon’s professional biography. Kroger also operates 37 U.S. food processing plants.

Dillon had various leadership roles with Kroger before being being named CEO in 2003 and elected chairman of the board of directors in 2004. He retired as CEO at the end of 2013 and as chairman of the board at the end of 2014.

Dillon has maintained KU connections and currently has other leadership roles with university units. He is vice-chairman of the KU Hospital Authority Board, a position he’s held since September 2015, and currently serves on the executive committee of the KU Endowment Board of Trustees.

Beyond KU, Dillon is a member of the boards of directors of 3M, the Union Pacific Corporation and MRIGlobal and the board of trustees for the University of Cincinnati Foundation.

Dillon currently lives in Kansas City, Mo., with plans to move to the Kansas side of the state line. He said he and his wife are building a house in Mission Hills.

His wife of 43 years, Dee Dillon, is also from Hutchinson and a KU graduate.

David Dillon said throughout his career the couple have lived in numerous states including Texas, Arizona and Ohio. He said he’s always considered himself a Kansan and that there was no doubt they would return to the state when he retired.

When the Regents approached him about chairing the chancellor search committee he was eager to help.

“It’s an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up,” Dillon said. “It’s something that means a lot to me. The university means an awful lot to me, as well as the whole state of Kansas.”