OXFORD — Mississippi’s College Board named University of Kansas provost Jeffrey Vitter as its top choice to lead the University of Mississippi, six months after the ouster of the previous chancellor provoked protests on campus and objections from notable alumni.
Vitter, the 59-year-old brother of Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, is scheduled to come to campus Oct. 29 to meet with faculty, students, staff and alumni. Barring heavy disapproval by campus groups, trustees are likely to vote later that day to appoint him as the leader of the 24,000-student university.
College Board President Alan Perry made the announcement Monday on the steps of the Lyceum administration building, where people gathered last March to protest the trustees’ refusal to renew former Chancellor Dan Jones’ contract. Despite pressure from Ole Miss luminaries including author John Grisham, former quarterback and donor Archie Manning, and former FedEx and Netscape executive Jim Barksdale, Jones and trustees couldn’t reach an agreement for him to remain. Jones, a physician, has since rejoined the faculty at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, leading clinical research into obesity treatment and prevention.
Perry said the search had been scheduled to continue to a second round of interviews after initial sessions with eight candidates. But Perry said trustees and campus participants all liked Vitter and saw no reason to continue. With Vitter also a finalist to become leader of the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus, Mississippi trustees brought their search to a quick end with an emergency meeting Monday morning in Jackson.
Vitter, a computer scientist, has been provost at KU since 2010. He also served as provost at Texas A&M University from 2008 to 2009, before resigning during a presidential transition, and was dean of the College of Science at Indiana’s Purdue University from 2002 to 2008.
“It became apparent that there was a surprising degree of unanimity and consensus at the first stage,” Perry said of Vitter. “One candidate, he was clearly head and shoulders above the rest.”
Student and faculty leaders were positive about the outcome. Faculty Senate Chair Michael Barnett and Student Body President Rod Bridges, who both sat through interviews, both said they thought trustees had done a good job of listening to campus concerns.
Barnett, a theater professor, said the board interviewed several candidates that faculty members ranked highly, and Perry emphasized Vitter’s academic qualifications. Vitter has published hundreds of articles, written or edited several books, and shares five patents. His field of study involves processing, compressing and communicating large amounts of data.
Barnett said he hoped Vitter’s selection would begin to bind the wounds left by Jones’ ouster.
“That’s been my hope throughout the entire process, that this is a process and a time that will begin to heal our community,” he said.
Ole Miss Athletic Director Ross Bjork agreed with Perry that it was clear that Vitter was the top candidate in the pool.
“I can’t wait for people to meet him and see his energy, see his passion for higher education,” Bjork said.
At Kansas and Texas A&M, Vitter has been noted for an emphasis on strategic planning. Tom Biesecker, president of the KU Faculty Senate, attributes that focus on planning in part to Vitter’s background in computer science.
“He’s a person who’s very intense in trying to advance the goals of whatever institution he’s associated with,” Biesecker said. “He’s a person who’s in a sense a risk taker.”
As provost at Kansas, Vitter oversees operations on campuses in Lawrence and Overland Park, but he does not oversee the University of Kansas Medical Center. Biesecker said Vitter has had to make tough choices as KU as struggled for funding in recent years, typically relying on data.
“He has a very direct style of leadership,” Biesecker said. “He will let you know where he stands and what he wants done.”