Since being named interim president on Dec. 13, Lori Stewart Gonzalez has had a rather eventful first two months at the helm of UofL. So what have those first two months been like? What are the biggest issues facing the university? And what can we expect in the future? UofL News sought answers during this in-depth Q&A with our new president.
UofL News: What attracted you to the University of Louisville when you initially applied for the provost role last year?
Lori Gonzalez: Well, first, it’s home. I am originally from Rockcastle County, so Kentucky is home. We’re happy to be closer to family and friends.
More important, the fact that UofL is a premier metropolitan research institution and a community engaged institution was intriguing to me. I saw similarities between the cities of Louisville and Memphis, where I worked at the UT Health Science Center. It was important to me that the institution was committed to addressing the Grand Challenges aimed to bring together all the intellectual capacity across Louisville to improve lives while elevating UofL’s national reputation. As I have stated many times, as UofL is elevated, so are Louisville and Kentucky.
UofL was a match for my interests and experiences – a strong traditional campus and an academic health center. Its rich history in athletic excellence corresponds with a loyal fan base.
I see UofL as an institution that embraces its history, identity and distinctiveness. UofL sets lofty goals then works to achieve them. The acquisition of KentuckyOne Health is an example of taking a risk to achieve important goals. Because of the acquisition, UofL Health made a huge difference during the pandemic, serving over a million patients last year alone. Many lives were saved because of this strategic acquisition.
Finally, I was attracted to UofL because it clearly demonstrates that is a student-first institution. Equity and diversity are hallmarks of UofL, and it leads the way in its continuing quest for becoming the university for all. UofL graduates move into the workplace as leaders ready to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.
UofL News: What was your initial reaction when President Bendapudi announced she was leaving, elevating you to the president’s role in just a short amount of time?
Lori Gonzalez: It was bittersweet. I was happy that she was tapped to lead such a prestigious institution as Penn State, but I was sad to have her move on. She has been a terrific boss and I was looking forward to our partnership to build on the momentum that I saw when I first applied for the position of provost. I wish her very well and know she will continue to take my calls as I navigate this interim role.
UofL News: Do you feel you’ve settled into the role of interim president?
Lori Gonzalez: I have been in higher education administration for over 20 years, and I’ve worked closely with several presidents. My experiences as a dean, vice chancellor and a provost have prepared me for this challenge. While the focus of the provost is internal, the work of the president has much more public-facing responsibilities. As both Provost and President I have enjoyed very productive interactions with business, community and governmental leaders as well as our donors and other academic leaders.
I’m just about two months into the job, so I am sure there will be some surprises. I inherited a strong, talented and supportive team and because they excel in their roles, the campus has continued its forward momentum, if not accelerated it. I am also grateful that the Board of Trustees provided such strong support during and after the transition.
UofL News: Now that you’ve had some time to acclimate, what are your biggest priorities in the president’s role?
Lori Gonzalez: Our three-year strategic plan is in its third year so we will begin work on a refresh of the plan. While the focus will remain on being a great place to learn, work and invest, I would like to see the goals within each pillar focus on those areas that will make us distinctive. We should answer the question, ‘What makes UofL different from any other institution?’
One of our highest priorities will be student success. We want to focus on growing enrollment. I view enrollment as an opportunity to offer the population of the state a high quality and life-changing education that we are honored to provide. Strategies for enrollment range from strategic recruitment of out-of-state, international and transfer students and adult learners to creating exciting, interdisciplinary face-to-face and online options. We should ensure every student has an engaged learning experience and an opportunity to increase their digital literacy. Finally, by focusing on retention as a responsibility of everyone on campus, we can graduate more students in less time and help the state in so many ways, especially in workforce and economic development.
Financial sustainability is critical and through the efforts of our outstanding CFO, Dan Durbin, and our unit leaders, we have had improved budgets for several years in a row. We want to find continuing funding sources for compensation to ensure that employee salaries are competitive. So far, the state budget looks favorable to higher education, and we hope our budget requests are included in the final budget.
Building strong connections with the community, business and industry, donors, governmental officials, friends and fans also remains a top priority. UofL is well positioned to make contributions in the workforce, life-changing research and civic engagement. We want to share our accomplishments and partner with others to address the challenges of the university, city and state.
UofL News: You’ve made some key appointments since December. How will they support your plans moving forward and what appointments remain?
Lori Gonzalez: Because my appointment to the interim role happened very quickly, our initial focus was both retaining our current high performing leaders and strengthening our leadership structure. While we needed key positions filled, we needed to take the time to do it right. As we move further into the semester, the leadership team is working well together. I am grateful to those who agreed to important interim roles and to work to keep the business of the university on track.
UofL News: How big a role has athletics played in your first weeks on the job? Has it been more or less what you expected?
Lori Gonzalez: A strong athletic program is critical to the overall success of the university. Our student athletes are leaders and their dedication to their sports bring students, faculty and staff together as Cardinals. The loyal fans support our teams with enthusiasm and this, of course, builds community.
As everyone knows, we have had several transitions in athletics, including both the athletic director and men’s basketball coach positions. I have made a point to interact with and support many of our terrific coaches and their staff.
So, while I have been more engaged with athletics in the interim president role than I did as provost, it hasn’t been surprising. I enjoyed watching our volleyball team at the Final Four and have cheered enthusiastically for our women’s and men’s basketball teams. I look forward to seeing all our teams take to the field, court, track and pool to show the community and nation what a No. 1 athletic program looks like.
UofL News: How would you describe your leadership style?
Lori Gonzalez: I characterize my leadership style as open and informal with an emphasis on building consensus. An institution is strongest when all the members of the campus are engaged. When an academic leader builds consensus, enables talent and establishes priorities, the campus can achieve its strategic vision. I believe that when core principles are at question or at stake, leaders should be prepared to work hard to reach consensus, if possible, but they must be able to make difficult decisions when necessary. I have spent my career focused on outcomes and taking action to meet the goals of the institution.
My approach to leadership has been influenced by my father. He taught me that any opportunities I was given weren’t afforded to me because I deserved them more than any other person. My life is shaped by the belief that with great opportunity comes great responsibility. Giving back to one’s community and world was expected of me, and I also believe it represents one of the core principles of higher education.
The Cardinal Principles resonate with me and the one I keep in top of mind every day is Noble Purpose. The Noble Purpose is my ‘why.’ I believe in the transformative power of education and work every day to ensure our students have an engaging experience in and out of the classroom and that our employees can thrive while meeting the academic mission of our university. By having the Noble Purpose as my touchstone, I have a constant reminder of UofL’s role in shaping the future.
On a lighter note, in the commonly used StrengthsFinder program, my five top strengths are: Arranger, Maximizer, Futuristic, Relator and Individualization.
UofL News: What would you consider some of your biggest professional wins?
Lori Gonzalez: These wins aren’t mine alone. They resulted from the collective efforts of so many people. I’ll just list of few of the accomplishments from my past that bring me the most pride.
- As dean at UK, I invested in the research mission of the College of Health Sciences through hiring of strong research faculty. This investment, along with funding from the university, allowed the college to move from 44th in research funding for schools of allied health by NIH in 2004 to 12th in 2009.
- As provost at Appalachian State University, I led the strategic planning process that evolved to embrace sustainability as a core value underlying our plan. We had broad campus support and the plan, The Appalachian Experience: Envisioning a Just and Sustainable Future set the stage for the campus to move forward in very meaningful ways.
- As vice chancellor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, I led an effort to execute a plan to education students to address health equity and inculcate a focus on health as a human right by addressing the social determinants of health throughout our institution. Through our plan, titled Community Engaged Care, we created classroom and engagement activities to educate students about the social determinants of health.
- Thus far, as provost at UofL, we opened the Center for Engaged Learning which came of out the UofL strategic plan. The center will be the hub for students to become engaged in the high impact practices of undergraduate research, experiential education and community engagement.
- I am equally proud of my contributions toward the university’s enrollment stability since assuming the provost role. Our retention numbers have returned to pre-pandemic levels. This stability is critical to ensure students remain on track toward their academic success.
- The campus safely returned to in-person classes in the fall and we continued in the spring. We were successful and our campus remains one of the safest places in Louisville.
- I should mention the 1 percent salary increase for our full-time faculty and staff. Although the increase is small, our team continues to explore ways to support our faculty and staff.
- I am also very proud of the individuals I have mentored over the years. It is so fulfilling to see them move into positions of leadership in higher education including positions of chair, dean, vice president and president.
UofL News: What are some challenges you’ve overcome in your professional career?
Lori Gonzalez: Throughout my career, I’ve faced challenges large and small. I have had to deal with budget reductions that resulted in loss of positions and have had to discontinue low enrolled programs. I have addressed scientific misconduct and academic integrity cases. One of the biggest challenges came during my time as provost at Appalachian State. I placed a faculty member on administrative leave with a pay-pending investigation related to complaints about discrimination, retaliation and creating a hostile environment in the classroom. A small but vocal group of faculty members claimed that due process and academic freedom had been violated. The faculty senate considered a vote of no-confidence, and the motion carried by one vote.
I was fortunate to have strong public support from both the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees throughout and after this situation. Most importantly, I had overwhelming support from most of the other faculty along with many of the staff and students. As closure, all the documents associated with this situation were reviewed in full by our independent accrediting body (SACSCOC) review team during their onsite reaffirmation visit and they found no issues or irregularities with how the situation was handled.
While the vote was unfortunate, I stand by the decisions made because the role of the provost is to uphold the integrity of the academy. I went on to successfully lead the campus in the creation of the strategic plan and a review of academic programs. Because of the public nature of this challenge, I made a point to openly discuss the situation throughout the interview process at both the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and here at UofL. I also shared the details with President Bendapudi during my interview with her.
The experience was quite some time ago, but I continue to carry the lessons learned as a leader. Leadership within higher education, as with many large organizations, requires the ability to make difficult decisions under pressure and with the integrity of the institution and the students we serve in mind. I learned how important it is to seek advice and counsel in balancing the difficult task of applying policy and accountability. It is rare when everyone agrees with a decision, and it is important to hear other opinions and perspectives. However, at the end of the day, the leader must make hard decisions if the public investment in an institution is to be honored and sustained.
UofL News: Is there any issue or concern that keeps you up at night?
Lori Gonzalez: Along with so many UofL faculty and staff, I want to ensure our students have access to critical services, especially services focused on mental wellbeing. The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but especially our students. We know they are anxious and nationally the number of students with depression has increased over this period. While they’re enjoying classes and engagement on and off campus, they’re observing what is going on in our world – from political polarization to the devastating effects of climate change and – this too, must add to their anxiety levels.
Our faculty and staff deal with these same concerns. They have had many challenges balancing work and personal commitments in the most difficult circumstances. They’ve worked hard through this extraordinary time, and I want to be sure that we can begin to find the means to increase compensation that is too long in coming. We are working to identify strategies for long-term sources of funding to make UofL a truly great place to work.
UofL News: What would you say so far is your favorite thing about UofL?
Lori Gonzalez: That’s an easy one; its people. When I came to campus to interview, I received such a warm welcome from everyone. I told my spouse, Randy, that I just had to get the job! So many people have reached out during the transition with words of support and encouragement. Their actions, along with a fantastic leadership team, underscores that UofL is a great fit for me.
UofL News: What about the city of Louisville?
Lori Gonzalez: I feel a bit like Goldilocks – Louisville is just the right size – not too big and not too small. Randy and I have come to love the city and we are proud to call it home. The rich history and culture and the wonderful food scene are all part of why we enjoy living here. But as I said before about UofL, it is really the people that make us feel at home. We received such a warm Kentucky welcome when we returned home, and we are so glad to be back in the commonwealth.
UofL News: How do you spend your free time?
Lori Gonzalez: Randy and I are serial remodelers. We are currently working on our third house renovation. The kitchen and living room are completed and the bathrooms are up next. This is our third remodel and I must admit, I hope it is our last.
Our son, Clay is a musician and composer, so by extension, we are music lovers. We enjoyed going to his performances when he was an undergraduate and master’s student. He broadened our exposure to many different types of music. Our tastes run from the beautiful Bluegrass music of Kentucky to alternative rock. Two of our favorites are John Prine and the Avett Brothers.
I enjoy baking although I am not a master baker. We just finished watching every season of the Great British Baking Show and the amateur bakers put me to shame. Their creations made me realize I’m really not a baker, I just put things in the oven and hope they turn out!
UofL News: Are you a candidate to be the permanent president?
Lori Gonzalez: Since becoming interim president, I have been working to ensure the campus moves forward and that important initiatives continue and are successful. I will spend time reflecting on the position and whether I can add value in this role and then decide about applying for the permanent position. It was an honor to be tapped for the interim role and right now I’m focused on doing my best to lead our campus forward.
UofL News: Any other messages you want to share with the Cardinal community?
Lori Gonzalez: UofL is a catalyst for engagement, economic development and the creation of future leaders. I believe in UofL and will spend my time articulating the value of higher education to the state and the value of an education at UofL specifically. In the next few months, we will be working on spreading the amazing story of UofL to national audiences in ways we haven’t done before. This campaign will help extend our current Here and Beyond new branding initiative.