José Luis Bermúdez sees much to admire about the University of Kentucky, including the lofty goals the school has set.
UK is much stronger than it is perceived, and becoming a Top 20 public university, the standard set nearly a decade ago, is "an ambitious goal, and it's achievable," he said.
Bermúdez is one of three candidates for provost at UK, and he made his comments during an open forum Tuesday. The provost is the university's top academic officer. The job has been vacant since last year, when Kumble Subbaswamy left to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
During the forum, Bermúdez praised the opportunities provided by a flagship university with a medical center. He also highlighted UK's range of high-level academic programs, complimented the new partnership with a private developer to build dorms, and cited UK's research and commercialization efforts.
He said he was not daunted by UK's financial woes, many of which are caused by faltering state support.
"I think a low level of state support is an advantage," he said. "The less dependent you are, the better."
That forces universities to find new sources of revenue beyond simply raising tuition.
"Higher education is badly in need of a new funding model," he said. "Tuition dependence is something we need to wean ourselves from."
Financial crisis is nothing new to Bermúdez. Four days after he arrived in his current job, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University, he was told he'd have to cut his budget by 10 percent, on top of 5 percent cuts made earlier.
Bermúdez said a land grant university offers many possibilities for collaboration, across classes, colleges and communities, something he has experienced as a scholar who has researched the intersection of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.
Bermúdez is a native of Bogotá, Colombia, whose family moved to England when he was 6. He was educated at St. Paul's School in London and at King's College, Cambridge. He has authored more than 100 publications and five books, including The Paradox of Self-Consciousness, Thinking Without Words and Decision Theory and Rationality.
For all his scholarly work, though, Bermúdez said he always has been interested in higher education leadership.
"I'm basically someone who likes to look at structures and see how they can be developed and built, as I said, to improve the things that I care about, which are research and teaching," he said.
About 80 people attended the forum. Others are scheduled Wednesday and Thursday for the remaining two candidates.
"He's definitely done his homework, and he has a good sense of UK," Karin Lewis, associate provost for undergraduate education, said of Bermúdez. "He does seem to have a lot of experience that could be applicable here."
Carol Jordan, director of UK's Center for Research on Violence Against Women, is an alumnus of Texas A&M, and she said she was impressed with Bermúdez's work on improving diversity, including bringing more Hispanic and black students to campus.
"I think that he really understands the relationship between a land grant university and the community," she said. "And I know he wants to maximize the potential of everyone on campus."
Two more forums
There will be forums for the other two candidates for UK provost. Both will be at 4 p.m. in the King Library:
Thursday: Christine Riordan, dean of the business school at the University of Denver.
More information: www.uky.edu/provostsearch