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By Anyssa Roberts | @KyKernel
The first provost forum, featuring José Luis Bermúdez, kicked off the competition among the three candidates seeking the title of UK provost, on Tuesday in the M. I. King Library, with a discussion on furthering education through research, diversity, and the importance of relationships at UK to solve campus issues.
At a university where white males dominate administrative positions, this year’s candidates offer a range of diversity to the competition.
“We were very interested in finding the most qualified individuals as candidates for the position. We are fortunate that these candidates have an interest in our university,” said Charles Carlson, a co-chair of the Provost Search Committee.
Bermúdez is the sixth dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M, a university reporting a total enrollment of 53,337 in 2012, including undergraduate and graduate students, according to the Tamu Times, the campus newspaper of Texas A&M.
“Both Texas A&M and UK are land grant universities, both have very strong commitments to community engagement through extension service, both have strong and proud sporting traditions, so I think that there are some real similarities between the institutions,” Bermúdez said.
Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Bermúdez left during the Colombian diaspora and traveled to Europe, where he was educated in Britain at the University of Cambridge.
“I think that makes me really sensitive to the transition issues people have when they are entering new cultures and new universities and new lifestyles,” Bermúdez said. “That’s sort of given me a lifelong appreciation of the importance of undergraduate education and a great research university.”
At the forum Bermúdez answered written questions from the audience, as well as questions submitted via Twitter and email.
When asked about graduate education, Bermúdez said research and teaching are two things that attracted him to UK.
“Research is incredibly important. All universities need to look hard at graduate programs and understand why they have them,” he said.
The question of UK becoming a part of the Association of American Universities was posed to Bermúdez, and he said, “UK is not an AAU school … but equivalency (to AAU) is a goal.”
UK is a land grant institution, an institute of higher education designated by the state to receive federally controlled land, which Bermúdez said attracted him to UK, since Texas A&M is also a land grant institution.
When asked about UK’s land grant mission, Bermúdez said higher education has a transforming power but depends on access and affordability.
One question asked Bermúdez about the riskiness of his budget model. Bermudez said his budget model depended on three principles.
“Transparency, people can see how sources are allocated, alignment of resources, and encourage creative thinking in research,” Bermúdez said. “But a challenge for any incoming provost is redistribution.”
Bermudez said the role of the provost in terms of resource allocation is to guide academic units, as well as to increase quality control and collaboration, ensuring fair standards for students and faculty.
When asked about the growing population of Latino students at UK, Bermúdez said he is working to promote diversity.
“The value of diversity is allowing it to make use of its most valuable resource, its people.
“One of the things I worked really hard at at A&M is having a grant from the National Science Foundation called Advance, it’s a program to promote female faculty in leadership positions,” he said.
“I think one of the things that really concerns me about A&M and one of the things that concerns me about Kentucky is the importance of removing the obstacles that there are to the success of minority female faculty in leadership positions.”
“We have increased the Hispanic student population 28 percent, black student population 55 percent and white student population 4 percent,” Bermúdez said.
The provost hopeful explained the importance of making higher education affordable from the student’s perspective.
“One thing that kind of comes up quite often is financial support,” Bermúdez said. “What students often tell me is they would be graduating much more quickly, and much more cheaply and with much less student debt if the university made sure that the right courses were offered at the right times for them to move through programs in a timely manner.”
During the Q-and-A session, a question was posed to Bermúdez about the importance of creating relationships between community colleges and four-year universities.
“There are many prospective students who do not, at this stage in their academic career, have the qualifications of the skills to go straight into UK, but they have the potential,” he said.
“The challenge is how do you help those students get the experiences, get the qualifications they need so they can fulfill their potential? That’s where a partnership between a two-year and a four-year university can be really important, because essentially what a two-year college can do is to bring the students to the level where they can profit from a UK education.”
Bermúdez was asked about creating working relationships at UK involving students, parents and administration.
“I think for a relationship with administration there must be shared values, a shared vision for the university and trust.
“I think that the relationship will start with the different organizations on campus … taking time out to spend time with groups with their parents at the beginning of the academic year and generally understand the concerns of the student body.”
“I think the University of Kentucky has a bright past and an even brighter future,” Bermúdez said.