OXFORD, Miss. ― For the first time in a generation, the University of Mississippi will be led by a chancellor who didn’t ascend from within.
Nine days after saying he was their top pick, Mississippi’s College Board voted unanimously Thursday to hire Jeffrey Vitter, now provost at the University of Kansas.
“Together, we will build upon the University of Mississippi’s position as a great American public research university, always moving forward to meet the needs of our state both now and on into the future,” Vitter said in remarks after the vote.
It’s the summit of a long climb through academia for the 59-year-old Vitter, a computer scientist and brother of Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. He’ll get a four-year contract, but Higher Education Commissioner Glenn Boyce said the details are still being hammered out and will be released next week.
Vitter told campus groups Thursday that he will focus on five areas: increasing academic excellence, building international ties, expanding research, raising more money and improving diversity. He hopes to start as early as Jan. 1 and says he will spend time on campus before year’s end.
Vitter replaces former Chancellor Dan Jones, who was forced out in the spring amid wide protest when trustees refused to renew his contract. Jones had been chancellor since 2009, rising from the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. He succeeded Robert Khayat, who became chancellor in 1995 after serving as a law professor in Oxford. Over their long tenures, Khayat and Jones pushed both the Oxford campus and UMMC through historic growth, while shedding many Old South symbols.
“I think an outsider may have a different perspective than we’ve had before,” said Camille Walker, a senior public policy major from Tupelo. “I would really like to see him emphasize the family aspect of Ole Miss rather than the business aspect.”
The appointment comes days after interim Chancellor Morris Stocks decided to stop flying Mississippi’s state flag Monday, saying its Confederate battle emblem was unwelcoming to some.
Vitter faced repeated questions Thursday on whether he agreed with that decision and how the university should deal with other Confederate symbols. He sidestepped direct answers, saying he respected the process by which the university made the flag decision and wanted to look to the future.
The new chancellor repeatedly touted his efforts to improve diversity in faculty hiring by looking past paper qualifications and interviewing many candidates, saying he wants to “create a campus environment that is welcoming and respectful of all and that fully embraces the power of diversity.”
Faculty members said Thursday that they were pleased with Vitter’s strong academic credentials and long career, but Faculty Senate President Michael Barnett, a theater professor, said some are still worried about a “trust deficit” between the campus and trustees.
“I am more pleased with Dr. Vitter than I thought I would be,” said Beth Spencer, a poet and lecturer in English, who expressed misgivings about Jones’ firing and key search decisions made behind closed doors. “He has legitimate credentials. I like what he has to say about engagement.”
Trustees said Vitter was the clear front-runner after initial interviews with eight candidates. They ended the process early to pursue Vitter, who was then a finalist to lead the Fayetteville campus of the University of Arkansas.
“He’s a great researcher and academician and we’ve been hearing from faculty that they want someone who can take Ole Miss to the next level,” said College Board President Alan Perry of Jackson.