Chancellor Douglas A. Girod

Chancellor Gray-Little outlines priorities during 2009 Opening Convocation

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Good evening Jayhawks!

It is truly an honor to be here with you.  I appreciate the warm welcome you have given me tonight and indeed every day since I had the privilege of being named chancellor.

This is the 144th Opening Convocation of the University of Kansas.  But it is my first, and it’s the first for many of you as well.  I want to extend a special welcome to all the new students, to faculty and staff, as well as the members of the community who are joining us.

No matter whether it is your first convocation or your 50th, I’m confident you feel the excitement and anticipation that comes from the start of a new school year. 

We’re on the eve of a journey – a journey that has different routes and different destinations for all of us, but one that we all chose to take together, as Jayhawks.

Our itinerary is set, in the form of class schedules and research plans.  Our bags are packed – with some of us eagerly collecting clothing that’s a darker shade of blue than what we owned previously – and we’re ready to go.

In residence halls, apartments and houses around Lawrence, new friends and roommates are meeting for the first time or getting reacquainted after a summer apart.  They’re telling each other about their lives, their passions and their hopes for the future.  They’re learning about the people who will travel with them on this journey.

In that spirit, I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself and the road I’ve taken to get to this evening.

My journey began in Washington, North Carolina.  It’s a small town in the eastern part of the state, sitting on an inlet that leads out into the Atlantic Ocean.

I had a very rich childhood. I was the fourth child of eight.  My father was a construction worker or at times he did farm labor.  My mother would have considered it a luxury to be able to stay at home and take care of us, but at times she also worked – sometimes on a part-time basis and sometimes, full-time.  

In addition to their love, my parents conveyed a commitment to personal integrity and a conviction that we should not let external perceptions set limits on our aspirations.  They also gave me a belief in the power of education to transform a life.  That belief has stayed with me my entire career and it is a belief that my husband, Shade, who is also from Washington, North Carolina, has helped me instill in our two children.

I attended a Catholic school through my senior year in high school.  It was the nuns there who suggested I go to Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  With their encouragement, the support of my family and a number of scholarships, I attended Marywood and earned my degree in psychology.

With my parents’ message about the power of an education reinforced by my college professors, I decided to continue my studies by attending Saint Louis University.  There in the shadow of the Arch, I earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in psychology. I must tell you that at the time I graduated from high school, I had no idea what a Ph.D. was or what it took to get one.  At the end of my time in St. Louis I competed successfully for a Fulbright Fellowship, which provided an opportunity to conduct research in Denmark.

From Copenhagen, it was back to North Carolina, this time to Chapel Hill.  It was there where I could realize my passion for teaching and research, devoting much of my work to the effects of social and cultural factors on personality and psychopathology.  From assistant professor to professor, then chair, dean and provost, I tried to never lose sight of the fact that it was access to higher education that changed my life, just as it changes the lives of all of our students.  

I thoroughly enjoyed my years at UNC and could have easily spent my entire career there.  But when the opportunity to become chancellor of the University of Kansas presented itself, I couldn’t say no.  During the interview process I was inspired by the love and aspirations that committee members had for this University I have not once regretted my decision. Indeed I am confirmed in it each day.

Now that I’ve told you a little bit about where I’ve come from, I’d like to give you my vision for where I believe we can take this great university.

I do this understanding there are a great many things I do not yet know about KU.  After all, it was just Monday at Traditions Night that I learned the alma mater and Rock Chalk Chant, and it’ll still take me some time to master that special hand clap.

But I can tell you that in the few short weeks since I had the honor of being named chancellor I’ve already gained a tremendous appreciation for the support that exists for KU here in Lawrence and around the state.  Kansans recognize what they have here and they want us to succeed.

I intend to use the coming days, weeks and months learning about this university, the hometowns of our campuses, and this state.  I’ll spend much of my time meeting with faculty and staff, deans and donors, alumni and Kansans, here on campus, and around the state and nation.

I want to hear from them and from you about what KU’s strengths are and where we can make improvements.  I want to see how KU already works for Kansas and learn how we can help meet even more of the state’s needs. 

These conversations will undoubtedly inform my thinking about the long-term direction of the university.  But as I told the search committee and the Regents, I have three main areas that I intend to focus on initially: one, undergraduate education, including increasing our graduation rate; two, raising KU’s scholarly and research profiles, which has important implications for graduate and professional students; and three, ensuring we have the resources to accomplish these and other priorities.

KU’s mission is one of teaching, research and service, and the men and women of KU shape lives and improve the world around them.  Nowhere is that work more evident than in academics.  Watching students learn and grow is one of the most rewarding aspects of being an educator, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that growth leads to a degree because education should help you make a life and a living.

My life would have been radically different had I not finished college.  I don’t know where I would have ended up, but it wouldn’t have been here on this stage. 

Far too many students who begin college do not finish it.  The hopes of the first day of college turn to regrets, with the stigma of dropping out only adding to the financial cost of not finishing.

I recognize this is a problem at universities nationwide.  I also know KU has made strides and its graduation rate is the best in the state.  Yet only about 32 percent of first-time freshmen have graduated after four years, and only 60 percent after six years.

How do we change that?  There’s no easy answer, but that is a question I will seek solutions for as I meet with you here on campus and with people around the state. 

Certainly, making sure students are prepared when they enter KU is part of the solution and the new flexibility on admissions standards should be part of the discussion.  Also, the Four-year Tuition Compact, in addition to making the cost of college predicable for students and families, should act as an incentive to graduate in four years and then walk down the Hill at Commencement.  I’m looking forward to my first walk, and in 2013, I want to take that walk with those of you who are first-year students now.

The walk down the Hill is one of the many things KU is known for.  Another is championships.  Debate championships, journalism championships and, of course, basketball championships.  KU is known as a great place to be a champion, but it is also known as a great place to be a scholar. 

The second area I plan to focus on is the scholarly profile of the university, raising it from its already strong level by ensuring research in all fields is fully supported and promoted.

As an international research university, KU attracts researchers and scholars from around the world – researchers who also travel the globe on journeys of discovery.  Our students learn from faculty members who are renowned in their fields and whose research interests span nearly the entire scope of human knowledge. 

It is my intent to ensure the university promotes a wide spectrum of research, from the drive for National Cancer Institute designation, through all areas of the natural sciences, and on to the arts, humanities and social sciences. 

NCI designation is within our grasp and other major research initiatives must also be identified and supported.  Major collective initiatives leverage KU’s strength and depth for creating new knowledge in order to change our world and benefit our state.  

To be successful in raising KU’s scholarly profile, we must ensure we have the facilities and resources needed to compete for outside funding, and we must encourage cooperation and collaboration between researchers from different fields, across our different schools, and campuses.   

We also must seek to attract even more of the best and the brightest to attend graduate school here, building up a pipeline of researchers who will make tomorrow’s discoveries.  And I hope to continue KU’s work in expanding undergraduate research, which has been an emphasis of mine for the last decade and which led to the creation of the Office of Undergraduate Research at UNC.

Of course, when we talk about new initiatives and new ideas, we also have to talk about money. 

I have no illusions about the financial situation of the State of Kansas simply because North Carolina, and almost every other state in the union, is facing the same challenge.

I can assure you I will be a vigorous advocate for KU in the Statehouse and around the state, especially when it comes to keeping the commitment the state has made to KU students and their families.  I have already met with Governor Parkinson and Lt. Governor Findley and plan to be in frequent contact with them and with legislators from around Kansas. 

But I also recognize that KU now receives less than a quarter of its funding from state government, meaning private fundraising and external resources are more important than ever.  More than 140 KU professorships have been endowed, and scholarships for 6,500 KU students are made possible by private funding.  This investment in the “human capital” of the university must continue to grow.

In addition to tremendous success in securing grants from NIH, NSF and other organizations, KU is a leader when it comes to partnerships with the private sector and groups such as the Kansas Bioscience Authority.  These partnerships allow us to leverage our state resources with the resources available in the private sector and non-profit world. 

One example is our work with the Bioscience Authority.  In addition to being a strong supporter of the cancer center effort and our drug discovery work, the KBA’s eminent scholars program has helped bring some of the world’s top researchers to Kansas.

Another example is the UKanTeach program, which is educating more math and science teachers in order to fill the growing shortage of instructors in these fields.  This collaboration between the School of Education and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences wouldn’t be possible without strong support from several individuals, non-profits and corporations.

Creating similar partnerships and securing private funds will be increasingly important given the continued decline in financial support from state government.  I expect to be actively involved in the process of making sure we have the resources necessary to fulfill KU’s mission of teaching, research and service.

These are just three of the areas I plan to focus on.  As I talk with you and travel the state, others will undoubtedly arise. 

Like all good travelers, I start this journey knowing my general destination, but open to taking advantage of the opportunities that emerge along the way.

I encourage you to take a similar approach.  Students: You may very well take a class outside your discipline that causes you to consider an entirely different career.  Follow that path where it leads.

To our faculty and staff: You may be inspired to pursue a new line of inquiry, or improve KU by changing an old way of doing business. This university would not be successful without you, so pursue that inspiration.

And to all the KU friends and supporters here and around the world: You may have an idea you’ve always hoped the university would adopt, or maybe just want to become more involved in this great institution. Please, become a part of our journey.

None of us know where this voyage will take us or what will happen along the way.  But I do know we’re all eager to find out.  Let’s take the first step together. 

Thank you and Rock Chalk Jayhawk!

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
44 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
5th nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets: Colleges," Military Times
Chancellor's Vision

The mission of the University of Kansas is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities, and making discoveries that change the world.

We will do that by raising the expectations we have for ourselves, the aspirations we have for our state, and the hopes we have for our world.