After a 30-year-long career at multiple universities across the midwest, University of Kansas alumna Barbara Bichelmeyer made her way back to her alma mater as the new provost.
Bichelmeyer became provost on Feb. 24 — two weeks before the coronavirus caused campus to shut down and classes to move online.
While the majority of her time at KU has been virtual due to the coronavirus, Bichelmeyer was eager to take on the new role, despite the circumstances.
“For me, this is the job of my dreams, you know?” Bichelmeyer said. “I'm just so excited to get here, so excited [about] what this place is and what it has to offer.”
She looks forward to getting on campus and meeting more of the people that helped her transition into her new role at KU.
“It's humbling and it's scary, but there's a lot of pride and confidence in all of that as well, because it is KU and it is the great institution that it is, and so proud of it that you just want to do well by it,” she said.
Bichelmeyer previously graduated from the William Allen White School of Journalism. She also is a professor in the School of Education & Human Sciences.
This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The University Daily Kansan: Tell me a little about you, your background and why you decided to come back to KU.
Barbara Bichelmeyer: I am the youngest of ten, and I am from the Kansas City area originally, from the west side of Shawnee. I’m a first generation college student. I have a lot of members of my immediate family all over Kansas City. I left because I had an opportunity to have a position at Indiana University, Bloomington, which is a great place to be.
But I have four degrees from KU and so I was always committed to KU. I had an opportunity to be provost at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and I was there for five years.
Then this position opened up and it's my alma mater. I owe a lot of my individual success and well-being to KU, so I gave it a try and I'm very fortunate that I was selected.
Kansan: You began your role as provost in late February, right before the pandemic hit. How have you managed that and what has that been like for you?
Bichelmeyer: So on my fifth day here, we were rolling out a new strategic plan. I think it was sometime in that second week where we were starting to say, "Uh oh, we might be going on spring break and not being able to bring people back."
In my ideal world, I would have walked in the door, I would spend a lot of time listening to people, learning from people, trying to understand what's going on here before I'd ever start really acting or deciding or making changes. But it literally was a crisis, and there is a lot that needed to be done.
Fortunately, I'm surrounded by a great group of people who really all love KU, care about each other and have been willing to be good teachers to me. I think we're better off than most universities are at this point because of that collaboration and that team teamwork and that sense of effort.
Kansan: What was going through your mind as you were starting this role at the beginning of this?
Bichelmeyer: My academic expertise happens to be related to how technology is changing educational systems. When I was at IU, I was in a department called Instructional Systems and Technology and I taught my first online class in 1999. So literally 20 years ago, I taught my first online class and I was the founding director of Indiana University Online, which brought all of the seven campuses of IU together. I've been studying and working for a long time in the space of academic programming and thinking about how technology is changing education.
I walked in the door, even before COVID hit ... saying that technology is changing the way higher-ed is going to work and what our value proposition is. I talked about the fact that we need to recognize that students can't afford to pay tuition increases anymore because we have more students and they're just financially strapped. That faculty can't work harder than their working, staff need to feel supported, and that technology could help make some of those changes in a positive way.
Ten days after I got here, COVID just hit and brought all of that change that needed to happen anyway to a different level of immediacy and importance.
Kansan: What is your favorite part about being the provost at KU?
Bichelmeyer: My favorite parts are the people, the community and what we're doing here together, because I grew up in this big family of people and we were taught that the greatest gift that we have is each other.
People are the end, they're not the means to anything else. I think the reason why that was so crystal clear in my family is because when I was five, my oldest brother was killed in a car wreck coming home for Christmas to surprise my parents. That is a devastating moment in any family's story, and that changed everything. My parents were really clear that when you have that kind of loss, it crystallizes what matters most.
For me, this is the ultimate people business, and I feel really gifted at what I value most in terms of people. This is where people grow together. This is where people get to be their best individual self, so to spend my days every day in a place where people are coming together in support of each individual becoming the best they can be, it's the best way to spend the hours of your life. I just love that it's about people. It's about our purpose, our growth and development, and that we get to do that in community.
Kansan: Being back on campus now in your second semester at KU, what are some of your goals as provost?
Bichelmeyer: One of my goals comes back to that idea about what I think is the greatest about this institution, which is people coming together to learn and grow and discover and support each other.
And the thing that's most important about a higher education institution, particularly a research institution like KU ... is that we research and we discover and we create new knowledge and we advance knowledge. But we do that through processes where we're critically minded, we teach critical thinking, we emphasize that you have to look at a problem and you have to analyze it and you have to figure out what's wrong so that you can solve it. You can get so critically minded, so focused on critical thinking and a critical mind that you lose sight, that we're doing this in service of others.
You can also get so committed to others and their learning, their growth that you forget that the best way to help other people learn and grow is to model it for yourself.
Whenever I'm done being provost, however many years away that that will be for me, I hope that what people would say about me was that I helped bring the best of learning and teaching and research and discovery so that we were a learning community where each one of us was focused on our own growth in service of of others.
And that's not easy to do in an institution that's as complex as KU. So part of that has to be we change the culture a little bit where we have a little more grace towards other people and we're a little more appreciative of them and where they are. And that's with all of higher ed, because that's part of critical thinking, because you can be so critical minded and so critically thinking that you kind of forget that you need an appreciative spirit. To blend that, the idea of critical thinking with appreciative spirit, so that we ourselves can grow and in service of others. That's my biggest goal, is to create that kind of culture here.