Bernadette Gray-Little, who built a reputation as a quiet, poised and effective chancellor of the University of Kansas, said Thursday in a letter to students and staff that she will step down next summer.
“It has been an honor to lead the University of Kansas,” Gray-Little said in her message, which did not give a reason for her decision to leave the position.
“KU has always been a special place with terrific people and an instinctive spirit to change our world for the better, ” Gray-Little said. She called it a privilege to lead KU: “I always will cherish and I’m grateful to the entire KU community for believing in our mission.”
Gray-Little, who will turn 71 next month, came to Lawrence from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2009. She is the first woman and first African-American to lead KU. The university declined to comment on her announcement beyond what was released on the school’s website.
In the past seven years, Gray-Little said in her message, “we have made tremendous strides as a university and positioned KU for even greater achievements in the future.”
She said she made her decision known early in the fall semester to give state and university leaders an entire academic year to recruit the next chancellor, eliminating the need for an interim leader, “which will ensure a smoother transition.”
Gray-Little’s announcement comes nearly two weeks after she told the Lawrence Journal-World that “funding cuts imposed on Kansas colleges and universities, and the threat of even more cuts to come, pose a serious threat to higher education in the state, and particularly to the University of Kansas.”
KU and its medical school saw a nearly $11 million reduction in state funding this year, which led to staff reductions and elimination of some programs.
But she also said financial challenges were not the only test facing KU and higher education in general. Racial tension on campuses and increasing reports of sexual assaults also are “forcing university administrators to look at fundamental changes in the way they do business,” Gray-Little said.
Last year, she dealt with highly publicized campus protests over how the university dealt with sexual assault complaints.
Gray-Little created a task force on sexual assault and implemented most of the 27 recommendations the group made for improving campus policy. Although recently KU researchers landed federal grants to develop national models for campus sexual assault prevention, KU remains among the hundreds of schools under federal investigation on allegations that it violated the law that protects against gender discrimination, including sexual harassment and assault.
In addition, Gray-Little last year led a campus forum on race that revealed that minority students at KU had been the targets of racial slurs and felt marginalized and oppressed on the Lawrence campus. In response, she created the KU Office of Diversity & Equity.
Later, she vetoed a student-led effort to develop a multicultural student government that would have been separate from the existing Student Senate. Gray-Little said she favored a more inclusive Student Senate but that forming a separate governing body did not fit with the spirit or inclusive mission of KU.
“I have a chancellor who is a listener, who is able to act and able to execute on things that help better the university experience for students,” said Stephonn Alcorn, student body president. “She has had to make some tough decisions. But she has led with poise.”
Zoe Newton, chairwoman of the Kansas Board of Regents, thanked the chancellor for her service and said, “Chancellor Gray-Little has been a transformative figure for the University of Kansas.”
Former regent Fred Logan agreed: “Chancellor Gray-Little has a quiet leadership style, she is a humble person who does not toot her own horn, but a lot of great things have happened for KU on her watch.”
He pointed to the development of the university’s strategic plan, which he said regents called “extraordinary.” And he praised her leading the university through a $1.6 billion fundraising campaign.
During Gray-Little’s tenure, KU has seen four consecutive years of freshman class growth, due in part to changes she has made to admissions procedures, the way the university recruits students and the expansion and revamping of some KU scholarship programs.
Expansions also were seen in KU’s schools of pharmacy, engineering and medicine, including, in 2011, transforming the KU School of Medicine-Wichita program from a two-year program into a four-year program and creating the new School of Medicine at Salina.
That same year, Gray-Little shepherded through the KU Alzheimer’s Disease Center, receiving national designation from the National Institute on Aging. And the following year, the University of Kansas Cancer Center achieved National Cancer Institute designation, an effort that began under the leadership of her predecessor, Robert Hemenway.
Gray-Little also has been praised by state educators for making significant curriculum changes, including reducing the number of required general education hours. That made it more likely a student could graduate in four years rather than five.
KU also has seen a fair amount of physical growth in Gray-Little’s tenure, including creation of the Bioscience & Technology Business Center, an on-campus business incubator network that now has more than 30 tenant companies totaling more than 130 private-sector jobs and a combined payroll of more than $8 million.
New construction also marked her years as chancellor, including the Learned Engineering Expansion Phase 2 building; Capitol Federal Hall, home to KU’s School of Business; the DeBruce Center, a student center and event space; a renovated Swarthout Recital Hall; and three new residence halls. Other projects still under construction include the Earth, Energy and Environment Center; the Health Education Building at KU Medical Center; and a renovated Spencer Museum of Art.
Athletic facilities also were enhanced significantly, including the construction of Rock Chalk Park in west Lawrence. And a release for the university on Gray-Little’s announcement noted that earlier this year, the university broke ground on the Central District redevelopment, a project that will bring to the Lawrence campus a new integrated science building — something KU has sought for decades — as well as new living spaces for students, a new student union and crucial infrastructure improvements.