UK Provost Christine Riordan tackles big projects in her first semester

University of Kentucky Provost Christine M. Riordan.
University of Kentucky Provost Christine M. Riordan. Herald-Leader

Christine Riordan has had a busy semester.

The University of Kentucky's provost arrived in Lexington last summer and found herself with two major projects, a new six-year strategic plan and a massive redesign of the school's budgeting process.

Riordan, who previously was dean of the University of Denver's business school, said she's spent the first few months getting to know the UK campus. One of her first realizations was that the new budgeting system, which has been in the works for two years, was not ready for full-blown implementation.

"We needed to take the model and get more feedback from the community," Riordan said in a recent interview. "That was something I heard very loudly. I knew we hadn't built all the right reports and infrastructures and tools that make a system like this work. "

The budget model, known as values-based budgeting, is based on the general principle of giving academic units back the money they earn in tuition and other revenues. In other words, the College of Engineering would receive all the tuition dollars from students who take engineering classes.

For colleges that don't generate as much money, UK must decide their value to the overall institution when determining how much money they will get. It's a highly complicated formula that is still being tweaked.

What UK values most will be decided through another provost-led project: a strategic plan for the next six years. Riordan has already begun work on this, and hopes to have it finished by June 2014.

"What I hope would come out of it is funding priorities," Riordan said.

Many on UK's campus are concerned about the quality of graduate education in the face of President Eli Capilouto's concentration on the undergraduate experience. Graduate fellowships, which are generally awarded to the top Ph.D. candidates, are down to $3.9 million a year after a high point in 2012 of $4.2 million, Riordan said. Travel awards were also cut back.

She has appointed a task force to study the graduate tuition award process and report back to her by March.

"All of that needs to be made more transparent," Riordan said. "It's a misperception that we're not focused on graduate education, that area really needs some good thinking around it, and the questions around that domain are really important."

Some of those questions include whether there are more opportunities for interdisciplinary programs, or whether UK could create more masters programs, which could then generate more revenue for Ph.D. programs.

The university's aging stock of academic buildings also presents a huge challenge, she said.

"There are many spaces that are tired and need renovation," she said. "That one came up in almost every conversation I've had."

Riordan said she also plans to provide more leadership opportunities to women on campus and advice about career advancement, or "having it in stages," as Riordan describes it. She's started working with UK's Women's Career and Leadership Development task force.

"In terms of advice, you have to figure out what your priorities are, and second, you have to realize that sometimes there are going to be tradeoffs," she said. "When you get into issues is when a priority is always a sacrifice."

Riordan is the first female provost since UK adopted that title for its chief academic officer in 2001. Elizabeth Zinser was chancellor in the administration of President Charles Wethington. She left UK to become president of Southern Oregon University in 2001.

Riordan said she plans to work more on fundraising, which she enjoys, for programs that may fall between colleges, such as UK's programs for first-generation students.

She's also interested in crafting UK's "brand."

"What is the University of Kentucky known for as an academic institution?" she asked. "What are our hallmarks and what would we say really stands out for our faculty, for our students, for our staff?"