Kansas University students have completed their spring semester, and Sunday afternoon thousands of graduates will participate in commencement exercises.
Likewise, commencement programs are taking place at high schools throughout the state.
Clearly, education, grades, academic achievement, the money required to run schools and money needed to pay for a college education all are on the minds of many. A growing number of students, parents, teachers, taxpayers and others interested in education also are asking just how good our schools are and how good a job they (teachers and the system) are doing in educating students.
What kind of grades should be assigned to the schools? If a university were looked upon as a publicly owned business, such as a General Motors, with Kansas taxpayers assuming the role of stockholders and students being the products, would KU be looked upon as a good buy?
Granted, a university can't truly be compared to a private business, but should a university be graded? It would seem there are several basic yardsticks to measure a business that also could be applied to assessing how good a job a university might be doing.
These include the vision and leadership of "management," the financial strength of an organization, the quality of the "products," the physical plant and equipment, research and development and customer satisfaction.
How would a knowledgeable analyst view KU? Would a broker or stock market adviser recommend KU as a "buy" or a "sell" after a thorough analysis of the school, its operation, the competition from other schools, fiscal strength, the quality of its students and faculty, the quality of its leadership, the amount of money going into "R&D," the performance of its graduates and many other factors?
There is no perfect A-to-F yardstick to use in grading a university, and who is qualified to make such an assessment? Nevertheless, based on some visits with individuals extremely interested in KU, here are some possible grades.
- Leadership and vision. Chancellor Robert Hemenway is completing his fifth year as head of KU and, as in any business, there is no way for a chief executive to get all his or her blueprints for change and improvement implemented all at once. Even so, Hemenway early on stated his primary goals and has been able to turn a good number of his "wishes" into reality. However, he needs the help and cooperation of others, such as regents, the governor, legislators and taxpayers to be able to achieve his objectives. These individuals play a critical role in the direction and resources for the school, and Hemenway is handicapped by this situation.
Unfortunately, there is a big question mark at this time as to whether the new higher education governance plan will help or hurt KU. And Kansas legislators have expressed a negative attitude toward KU.
This being the case, a fair collective grade for KU leadership and vision probably would be a B-minus, due primarily to the lack of vision by legislators and the inability of KU to sell its story.
- Financial strength. Support from the state, based on what KU's peer institutions receive in the way of state assistance would place KU in a C or even C-minus category. In the area of private monetary support, the KU Endowment Association rates a B-plus. Money from sponsored research is increasing, and Hemenway is urging extra effort in this area. Currently, this facet of fiscal support probably merits a C-plus.
- Quality of the faculty. In many cases, the abilities and talents of KU faculty members far exceed the level of pay they receive, but in trying to assess the overall quality of faculty, it probably would be fair to note the average salaries of various faculty levels compared to those at their peer institutions. If there is justification to think better pay attracts better teachers and researchers, then KU probably shouldn't get a grade of more than a C-plus. However, there is reason to believe a special loyalty factor enters this picture. Many talented, highly sought faculty members choose to remain at KU even though they have numerous opportunities to accept higher-paying positions at other schools. The danger in this is that state legislators might assume, falsely, the state can hold onto these gifted teachers and researchers without the appropriate level of compensation.
- Product. As the late, great KU basketball coach Forrest "Phog" Allen used to say when asked how good a particular team might be, "Ask me in five years." He thought any assessment of a team should be made after the players graduated and were performing in their post-college careers. This is a difficult area in which to attach a grade but perhaps a C-plus or a B would be reasonable.
With the state finally requiring a certain academic preparation for entering Kansas freshmen, it is likely new students, starting in the year 2001 will be better prepared and consequently will do better in their school work.
- Facilities. The "Crumbling Classrooms" funding and legislation will help, but many needs remain. The KU grade in this category probably would be a C-plus or a B-minus. Libraries, which are critical to a university, should rate a B-plus at KU, and its Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art also deserves a B or a B-plus.
- Satisfied "customers." KU alumni are among the most loyal of any state university. Various past KU chancellors who have served at other schools, before or after their time at KU, report KU is unique in the enthusiasm, interest and support of its alumni. This area rates a B-plus, but there is growing concern among some alumni as well as many on the KU campus about some aspects of the current KU Alumni Association operation on Mount Oread.
KU is an outstanding state-assisted university, but most people associated with the school are quick to acknowledge it can become an even finer institution. There is no room for complacency, and some way must be found to get state legislators to realize the importance to the entire state for funding that is more than merely adequate for state universities.
Likewise, the governor, whoever he or she may be, must be one of the most effective and enthusiastic cheerleaders for higher education if KU is to reach its potential. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the governor's office in recent years.
It will be interesting to observe what progress will be made at KU between this year's 127th commencement and the first commencement of the new millennium and what grade the university deserves a year from now.