KU community reacts to news that ex-chancellor still earning full salary as ‘special advisor;’ details on job remain few, far between

In this file photo from March 9, 2016, former University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little speaks to the KU Student Senate at the Kansas Union.

A day after news broke that former Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little is being paid more than $500,000 to serve as a special adviser at KU, it was still unclear what her employment terms are with the university.

The Journal-World has filed a Kansas Open Records request for a document listing the terms of Gray-Little’s employment with the University of Kansas. But on Thursday, the Kansas Board of Regents had not yet fulfilled the records request.

A Board of Regents spokesman, though, did confirm that former Chancellor Robert Hemenway also received his full chancellor’s salary for an extended period of time after leaving the chancellor position. A review of the Journal-World’s 2009 coverage of that issue showed a significant difference between how the two ex-chancellors were treated: Hemenway received two years of his full salary post-retirement, totaling a little more than $680,000. Gray-Little is receiving one year of salary totaling $510,041.

The review also found that public funds were used to pay 35 percent of Hemenway’s post-chancellor salary. In the case of Gray-Little, public funds are paying 55 percent of her post-chancellor salary. That’s a marked difference from what has occurred with many other parts of the university’s budget, where public funding has been shrinking.

A spokesman for the Kansas Board of Regents provided a few new details regarding Gray-Little’s post-chancellor deal on Thursday.

“Chancellor Gray-Little had served KU for years, done important work during that time and had a wealth of knowledge about the institution,” Board of Regents spokesman Matt Keith wrote in an email. “The Board determined that it wanted to retain her services and expertise during Fiscal Year 2018 at her existing salary so that she could help ensure a smooth transition of leadership, with as little lost institutional knowledge as possible.”

Dale Seuferling, KU Endowment president, said KU Endowment agreed to bankroll Gray-Little’s post-chancellor salary after being approached by the Board of Regents. Seuferling said it was the Regents’ suggestion that Gray-Little be paid her full salary, and, given her “tenure of nine years as chancellor, that seemed appropriate.”

“Certainly KU Endowment recognizes that there is no more important role at the university than chancellor, and certainly individuals who have extended tenure and service as Bernadette Gray-Little had,” said Seuferling, who added that KU Endowment had “relied upon the Board of Regents’ decision making” in agreeing to the salary.

Seuferling said part of Gray-Little’s new position is donor outreach. That includes correspondence with major donors, serving on KU Endowment’s volunteer and advisory groups and attending events, he said.

Gray-Little herself has not spoken about her role post-chancellor, referring all questions to the university or the Regents when contacted by a Journal-World reporter Wednesday.

In Gray-Little’s final interview with the Journal-World as chancellor — in May 2017, a few days before Girod’s hiring was announced — she said she did not yet have “concrete plans” that she could share about what she would do after vacating the chancellor’s office.

Gray-Little emphasized that she was not retiring.

“I’m leaving this position,” she said.

Gray-Little said she would continue to have some affiliation with KU and would remain a KU employee “for several months,” but did not elaborate. She said she also would continue her work on several national higher education boards and initiatives.

“I will have no role in running the university,” she said.

Gray-Little said at that time that she did not have a retirement compensation package or any contract buyout compensation coming.

Keith, the Board of Regents spokesman, confirmed Thursday that Gray-Little is “not retired from state service, and, as such, cannot yet draw a pension.”

Joe Harrington, a current faculty senator at KU, said he found the arrangement “problematic” for several reasons. Chief among these are transparency and the “widening economic gap on campus,” he said.

Harrington, a professor of English, said some staff members rely on “food stamps to get by,” while the number of administrators making six-figure salaries continues to grow.

Susan Twombly, chair of KU’s department of educational leadership and policy studies, had “no idea” that Gray-Little had been retained as a special adviser. Though she personally likes and admires the former chancellor, Twombly said, she laments how Wednesday’s revelation might impact KU’s state funding requests.

“The optics and the symbolism are particularly concerning given the Legislature, tuition and the lack of raises for faculty and staff,” she said.

Lev Comolli, president of the student group KU Against Rising Tuition, said he doesn’t take issue with Gray-Little staying on as a consultant, despite his lukewarm enthusiasm for her as chancellor. However, he said he had problems with how much she was being paid in her new role.

“That being said, the fact that we are paying half a million dollars, up on the same par as Girod’s salary — not only is it irresponsible, it’s unsustainable,” Comolli said. “We’re in a situation where we need every penny we can get.”

Comolli said he finds it “completely ridiculous” that Gray-Little continues to be paid her full salary, including $280,523 in public funds, when the public seems to have been largely unaware of her presence on campus.

“We need to see more accountability. We need to see the administration listening to their constituency,” Comolli said. “… I think we need to review and reinforce what these administrative positions are, what their responsibilities are, what they do.”

Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, the faculty adviser of KU Against Rising Tuition, called for an even more dramatic change.

“The only solution is to clean up the people who are supposed to keep an eye on these costs, and that’s the Kansas Board of Regents and the highest levels of KU management,” said Barrett-Gonzales, an aerospace engineering professor and officer of KU’s American Association of University Professors chapter. “They’re the ones that are supposed to be responsible stewards, and I would argue that they have not been.”