‘Parachuting onto a moving train’: New provost excited about first challenges


Provost-designate David Blackwell said he is “really excited” to start the job in January. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Rick Childress

Due to outgoing-Provost Tim Tracy’s relatively sudden departure, UK’s Provost-to-be David Blackwell is being handed someone else’s work in progress—and he’s very excited about it.

“I feel like I’m parachuting onto a moving train,” Blackwell said. “So the immediate challenge is really to dive in to everything that’s going on.” 

From the hiring and monitoring of deans and faculty down to what programs go on inside every dorm, Blackwell, as provost, will have his hands in almost all of the major academic activities at UK.

“Almost everything” that involves students or student academic success goes through the provost, he said.

As of Jan. 8, Blackwell will be the former Dean of the Gatton College of Business. For him, January will likely involve a lot of learning, talking to people around campus and looking at data and reports.

“I need time to assess the situation,” Blackwell said. “I’ve been functioning as a dean for six years, and while I helped the provost on some occasions, I still don’t have the full picture.”

UK’s five year strategic plan, which was introduced by Tracy, is still in full swing. Blackwell said he supports the plan and isn’t going to make any immediate decisions that deviate from it.

“The community shouldn’t expect any big changes out the box,” he said. “It’s going to be very deliberate and we’re going to look at initiatives in the ongoing, assess those and prioritize from there.” 

Graduation and retention rates are some of the major focuses of the plan, and Blackwell said he will continue to focus on those.

Some major changes have recently been made for the sake of raising retention, as UK announced last fall that it will be delaying primary sorority recruitment—a decision that was met with mixed feelings from the Greek community.

Blackwell, who was an associate dean at Texas A&M before coming to UK, said that he misses teaching students. He was able to teach a class while at UK, but with his cluttered administrative schedule he’ll miss out on that constant contact with students.

“Anything to do with students is the first passion,” he said. “That’s one of the difficult trade-offs. Once you move into administration you kind of move further and further away from the students.”

To avoid falling out of touch, Blackwell met often with students in Gatton, and those meetings often influenced many of his decision there. He said he wants to continue to meet with students as he becomes provost.

“It really takes a systematic effort to be with students, to listen to them and have that influence whatever policy or whatever priorities come out next,” he said.

In 2015, Blackwell was widely criticized for his decision to accept a donation from the Koch brothers, who are well-known for their pro-free market political views. Their $4 million donation helped fund the John H. Schnatter Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise in Gatton.

During Blackwell’s early December open provost forum, several sign-bearing students arrived to protest Blackwell’s possible ascendance to Provost.

Nadia Almasalkhi, an international studies senior, said she and her fellow students accomplished their goal at the forum. In addition to asking questions, several of the students held up signs that said things such as, “Say no to pro-Koch provost.”

“It is refreshing to have students come to an event like this and feel comfortable expressing their views, and they did it in a very respectful fashion,” Blackwell said after the forum. “Completely appropriate for them to ask the question, so I just want the public to know that I appreciated that.”

Blackwell said that a university is exactly the place for those who disagree with each other to engage and discuss issues in a “civil fashion.”

“That’s what happened today, so I’m proud of those students,” he said at the time.