New Provost on Getting Grounded at UVA: ‘It Rocks, Actually’

Tom Katsouleas, the University’s new executive vice president and provost, said UVA “captures you emotionally. … I haven’t seen that any place else I have been.”

When his appointment as executive vice president and provost was announced last spring, Thomas C. Katsouleas described the University of Virginia as “a special community that values as I do the close personal interaction between outstanding students and top scholars from a broad academic spectrum.”

Now three months into his new position, Katsouleas is experiencing that dynamic firsthand – and liking what he sees. The former Vinik Dean of Engineering at Duke University recently took a moment from his busy schedule to assess his first few months on Grounds.

Q. How’s it going so far?

A. It rocks, actually. I am excited about the people I have met and their enthusiasm for an ambitious agenda. Everyone from students to staff, faculty and the community have been so welcoming and supportive. I am still drinking from a firehose a bit, but I have had a chance now to meet in small groups with faculty from each school as well as some of the student leaders. I have also had retreats with the deans and the leadership team in the provost’s office to discuss plans for the year, and both went extremely well. We have great leadership.

Q. What are your early impressions of UVA, and how do they align with your expectations before you arrived?

A. I have found a lot of what I would expect from one of the nation’s top public universities, including great faculty and students. I think the thing that you don’t appreciate until you get here is the way that the place captures you emotionally. The terms people use, and I find myself using, to describe UVA are the language of a love affair – “smitten,” “magical,” “grace,” for example. I haven’t seen that any place else I have been.

Q. Higher education is under a lot of pressure from different points, particularly public institutions. You came from a highly successful private university, Duke. What was it about this opportunity that so interested you?

A. I was drawn to the commitment to close personal interactions between students and scholarly faculty and the strong sense of community and broad academic context – all things associated with elite privates. But the added dimension of doing that at the scale and accessibility of a premier public was exciting to me. This is a dynamic time in higher education with new pedagogies and academic technologies. The best universities will try to figure out how best to use them to maximize the in-person interactions between students and faculty; the university that figures that out at a public scale has the opportunity to be the leading 21st-century university.  

Q. As the top executive over academics and faculty, you have the key leadership role in the Cornerstone Plan priority to “assemble and support a distinguishing faculty.” How would you characterize that effort at this point?

A. At this point in UVA’s history, I think nothing is more important. The deans and president and I are working hard to set us on an ambitious path that will roughly double research and scholarship in the next seven to 10 years. Half of that will be in the Medical School and the rest on Grounds. Half will come from supporting current faculty, and half from the new faculty we hire. To that end, we are examining a study from faculty and associate deans across Grounds that identifies opportunities to invest in removing barriers in infrastructure and other types of support to unlock latent research potential. With helpful input from the Faculty Senate, we have assembled a blue-ribbon search committee for a new and empowered senior vice provost for research position (formerly the vice president for research) as well as put out a call for proposals for a next pan-University research institute. The deans are also fully engaged with their faculty in an ambitious faculty search process that includes strategic cluster hires and target-of-opportunity searches for the first time. So I am excited to see what (and whom!) the spring brings.

Q. In addition to that effort, what are the two or three things that are getting most of your attention and time?

A. Team building: I am searching for three deans in addition to the VPR. Campus culture and environment: I am partnering with Pat Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer, and leaders of constituencies across Grounds, especially students, to organize a charrette in the spring. This will be an all-day design exercise aimed at creating the culture and environment we value; one that is welcoming, inclusive, respectful, diverse and safe.

Q. Does your job leave any time for doing things that you enjoy outside of work?

A. Yes, but mostly combined with work. I got a chance to see a great musical by the students here (“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson”) and attend the UVA football game in Los Angeles, where I saw some old friends and made some new ones. The deans and I had a planning retreat at Virginia Beach, and I got to surf a bit. Trick-or-treating on the Lawn (and being an honorary costume judge) was another highlight. I have also had a chance to get away to Smith Mountain Lake for some water-skiing on weekends this fall.

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