LINCOLN — Kansas State University Provost April Mason emphasized her qualifications in budgets, overseeing athletics and the land grant missions during University of Nebraska-Lincoln forums Wednesday.
Mason is one of four finalists for the role of UNL’s chancellor when Harvey Perlman steps down in June. Close to 200 people attended the three forums held in the student union Wednesday afternoon.
Mason said she doesn’t want to leave her current job, where she’s been the No. 2 administrator since 2010. But when she saw the UNL opening, she knew she couldn’t pass it up.
“I see a wonderful opportunity in the leadership position here at UNL that is very close to the skills and abilities that I have in my tool chest to bring here,” Mason said.
Overseeing strategic planning and setting “aspirational goals,” such as Kansas State’s goal of becoming a top 50 public research institution, are among those strengths, she said. She also has served on Kansas State’s athletics board for six years, playing a role in reviewing issues that arose with student-athletes and hiring and firing staff.
Mason, 59, serves as KSU’s chief academic officer and is paid $367,532 annually.
She grew up in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and Rome, Italy, where her father worked with Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, as well as a master’s degree in plant physiology and a doctorate in foods and nutrition from Purdue University. Her primary research areas have been food security and nutrient availability from plant food products.
She previously held a dean’s post at Colorado State University and was an associate dean at Purdue.
Mason noted that she has spent her career in land grant institutions, and she considers their mission “critically important.” She also extolled the value in sharing governance with faculty and open communication with staff and students.
She largely steered clear of specific goals if she were hired at UNL, saying she would need a lot more information before she set those goals. But she said enrollment growth goals like UNL’s push for 30,000 students need to come with careful planning and parallel growth in physical buildings, staff and student services.
On her university’s goal to become a top 50 research institution by 2025, Mason said, it could just as easily end up 49th as 67th. But she believes the university is certain to be better than Kansas State is today.
The biggest ongoing challenge Mason spoke of is the one that pesters higher education leaders nationwide: balancing affordability for students with budgetary struggles. Mason said the priority must be on running lean and finding new revenues as universities become more reliant on tuition dollars to operate.
“You are the future of our country, of our world,” Mason said to the student forum. “If we starve the state for too long in education resources, I’m not sure that you can come back from that.”
In response to student questions about diversity, Mason said she thinks it’s important for universities to have a welcoming and open attitude to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or ethnicity or any other difference that may exist.
She took some pointed questions from the faculty forum for a policy at Kansas State she called “chronic low achievement,” which means tenured faculty could be let go after successive years of bad performance reviews. That performance review includes student evaluations, which concerned some UNL faculty.
The policy was publicized after the termination of a faculty member who claimed he was being punished for raising questions about colleagues’ research to an outside journal.
Mason said that the policy predated her arrival at Kansas State but that she supports it because it is geared toward improving performance of faculty, not punishment.
“If someone is not doing well in their faculty assignment, something needs to happen,” she said.
Though some faculty members ultimately resign or are fired, Mason said, several have followed a development plan and improved their performance.
“When we do use it, it’s to assist a faculty member in getting better,” she said.
George Wolf, a retired UNL English faculty member who now works at the Center for Great Plains Studies, said Mason is certainly an accomplished candidate. But he believes faculty at UNL will continue to have questions about the fairness of her approach to revoking tenure.
“I think we need to look further into that,” Wolf said.
* * *