Chief diversity officer leaves KU; university now searching for three new vice provosts

E. Nathan Thomas III, Kansas University Vice Provost for Diversity and Equity, right, speaks to a group of student protesters gathered inside the administration offices at Strong Hall, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015.

The University of Kansas’ chief diversity officer has left the position. Provost Neeli Bendapudi shared the news in a message to campus, in which she said she would search internally — specifically for a tenured faculty member — to find a replacement.

E. Nathan Thomas had been KU’s vice provost for diversity and equity since July 2014. He previously worked at University of South Florida Polytechnic, where he was the first director of campus diversity. He also was a founder and consultant with Florida-based Invictus Human Capital Management.

“I’m sad to announce that Vice Provost Thomas will be moving on to other opportunities outside of the university,” Bendapudi said in her message, shared online last week.

It has been a busy few years for diversity matters at KU, especially following a campus town hall meeting in November 2015 that led to (or unearthed) unrest and and the push for a multicultural student government — separate from KU Student Senate — at KU. Among other things, Thomas was a member of KU’s sexual assault task force that met during the 2014-15 school year, and also led the KU climate study that was administered this fall.

photo by: Mike Yoder

E. Nathan Thomas III, Kansas University Vice Provost for Diversity and Equity, right, speaks to a group of student protesters gathered inside the administration offices at Strong Hall, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015.

Bendapudi said, effective Monday, she appointed an acting provost for diversity and equity: Jennifer Hamer, associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor and chair of the department of American Studies. Bendapudi said that she would launch an internal search for Thomas’ replacement this week, with a goal of the new person starting by July 1.

“The April 2016 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory Group report suggested that the position include a tenured faculty line to ensure that they can push for broader structural changes throughout the institution,” Bendapudi said. “I wholeheartedly agree with this suggestion and have included this among the requirements for the position we will post.”

That report does not name Thomas, who was not a tenured faculty member. But it does say that chief diversity officers, especially those without tenured faculty appointments, “can be limited in their capacity to direct structural changes.”

“Staff engaged in diversity work, in particular, can jeopardize their jobs simply by being conscientious advocates in their work,” the report says. “We understand that this risk can be especially acute for chief diversity officers… Their role can be confined to performing ‘diversity management’ as an extension of university public relations to promote the appearance of cohesion and protect the institutional brand through messaging and imaging.”

Bendapudi did not elaborate on Thomas’ departure when asked, but said in a follow-up email, via representatives from her office: “We had discussed this before the announcement and he and I remain on great terms. As noted in my Strong Ties message, he made excellent contributions to the university during his time here and I believe that we are poised for even more success because of the foundation he helped lay.”

I wasn’t able to reach Thomas Monday to ask what his next plans are.

In addition to the search for Thomas’ replacement, Bendapudi said her office would begin searches for two other vice provosts — all internal, as well:

• Vice provost of faculty development: Mary Lee Hummert plans to return to her faculty appointment this fall. Initially she thought she’d be in the role just five years, she told me this afternoon. It’s now been 11, and she’s been considering the move since last summer.

“Sometimes you just feel when it’s right,” she said. “I will miss that opportunity to really connect with so many people across campus. I think the best part of a position like this is when you’re able to help people and really support them in their positions.”

Hummert is a professor in communications studies, specializing in age stereotypes and communications. She said she had taught a class per semester until the past few years, when she was heavily involved with the recruitment effort for KU’s Foundation Distinguished Professors initiative, the last of which was hired last year. In addition to teaching, she’ll be getting back to her research as well, she said.

• Senior vice provost for academic affairs: That role is presently filled on an interim basis by Stuart Day. Day — associate professor of Spanish and director of faculty programs in KU’s Office of International Programs — has been interim since January 2016, when former vice provost for academic affairs Sara Rosen was tapped as interim provost. Not long after Bendapudi was hired as provost last summer, Rosen left KU to become dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Georgia State University.

photo by: Nick Krug

The bronze Jayhawk outside of Strong Hall looks down Jayhawk Boulevard on the first day of classes, Monday, Aug. 22, 2016.

• I’m the Journal-World’s KU and higher ed reporter. See all the newspaper’s KU coverage here. Reach me by email at, by phone at 832-7187, on Twitter @saramarieshep or via Facebook at