Outgoing KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, in her own words
In 2009, a few days after the University of Kansas announced that Bernadette Gray-Little would be its 17th chancellor, a Journal-World reporter made some calls and even traveled personally to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill — where Gray-Little had worked more than 30 years, most recently as provost — to ask colleagues what they thought of her.
Colleagues quoted in those 2009 stories said things including:
“Bernadette is not a rock star…She’s a rock.”
“She’s not going to panic under pressure, for sure.”
“She is not someone who walks in a room and feels like she immediately needs to make her presence known. She’s more reserved than some in that sense.”
At KU Gray-Little has hardly been famous for talking about herself, either, at least not publicly or without prompting.
As Gray-Little prepares to step down as KU’s chancellor (Douglas Girod will take over July 1), one thing the university did was create a website collecting all things “BGL,” chancellor.ku.edu/thank-you-bgl. There’s a timeline of her achievements at KU, a tribute video, a photo gallery, a collection of her campus messages and — the part I’m getting to — transcripts of dozens of speeches she’s given, at KU and elsewhere across the country, over the past eight years.
Perhaps the most personally revealing is one the KU community never heard or read about in the Journal-World: an October 2012 speech Gray-Little gave during convocation at her undergraduate alma mater, Marywood University in Scranton, Pa..
In that speech, according to the transcript, Gray-Little talked about being one of eight children in a poor family, sometimes unsure of where the next meal would be coming from. She talked about being a “rambunctious” child, who frequently had to stay after school and clap chalkboard erasers for punishment. She talked about how she came to go to college, then eventually led a university as its chancellor, and what values drove her.
Here’s a passage from her message to the students at Marywood:
I’m not asking you to be a (Martin
Luther, Jr.) King or a (Cesar)
Chavez. But I am asking you to devote
yourselves to the cause they worked
for: a society that gives its members
the chance to reach their full
potential–a society that empowers the
least able of us to reach our full
potential. A nation that respects its
pluralistic roots and that educates
its people so they can be active,
conscientious citizens. A nation that
has the foresight to invest time and
resources on a naughty little girl
from a poor family of second-class
What’s more, I’m asking you to work
for the common good, to create a
society that reflects Christ’s
teaching that we are each other’s
keepers and that which we do to the
least of His children, we do to Him.
A child’s success in life should not
be predetermined at birth. And we
must all fulfill our duty to each
These are the values of empowerment.
They align with other values, such as
respect for the uniqueness and dignity
of each individual. The need to work,
together, as members of a community
for the benefit of all. The drive to
excel in all aspects of our lives.
And, as Marywood students and soon
graduates, the pursuit of ideals such
as truth and justice in service of the
These should all be familiar, because
they are all reflected in the core
values of Marywood University.
They’re the values that have guided my
life, and are what I hope will guide
For a little more — a little — about what Gray-Little has planned next, here’s a story from Sunday’s Journal-World in which the outgoing chancellor reflects on her time at KU and her next plans.
• I’m the Journal-World’s KU and higher ed reporter. See all the newspaper’s KU coverage here. Reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 832-7187, on Twitter @saramarieshep or via Facebook at Facebook.com/SaraShepherdNews.