It's no secret: Chancellor Robert Hemenway wants Kansas University to be among the top 25 public universities in the nation.
What does that mean? It's hard to say.
"That's what we struggle with," said Kathleen McCluskey-Fawcett, senior vice provost. "What does it mean to be top 25, and how do we know when we get there?"
KU officials are hoping to clear that up in the next year.
"That's one thing we're looking at this year, to develop a series of metrics to measure and show how progress is being made toward that goal," Hemenway said.
As KU leaders look for ways to measure their progress toward the top 25, the NCAA Div. I Board of Directors is working on methods to measure academic progress in athletic departments.
Hemenway, who chairs the board, said he thought the NCAA's work could apply to KU as well.
"I don't see any reason why we can't develop a system to apply to the university as a whole," Hemenway said.
But for now, Hemenway said the magazine rankings could be the best way to track KU's improvement.
"Those are not irrelevant," he said. "We can learn from those. I think there are a whole complex of measures, lots of ways to measure quality in faculty, students and the university."
U.S. News & World Report
In some regards, KU's goal of being in the top 25 is a steep one.
The most common measure of success is the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings, which are released each September and April.
"If we were listed in the top 25 publics in U.S. News & World Report, we could declare victory," McCluskey-Fawcett said.
The overall university ranking is based on 16 factors, including academic excellence, reputation, retention and graduation rates, student selectivity and financial resources.
KU fell from 39th to 41st in the 2002 listings. KU has fallen from 30th in 1998, the first year the magazine separated public and private schools, to 42 in 2000. It rebounded slightly to 39th in 2001.
As Lynn Bretz, a KU spokeswoman, pointed out, KU wasn't alone in its quest for improvement.
"Other schools are bent on improving, too," she said. "We're running hard just to stay in place."
Several undergraduate programs also were ranked among public universities in the magazine. They were pharmacy (20th of 31 programs ranked), business (28th of 47) and engineering (36 of 61).
In graduate school rankings released in April, KU had 22 programs ranked in the top 25, including the city management and urban policy master's program and special education doctoral programs, both of which were ranked first.
Because a significant portion of the U.S. News & World Report rankings are based on reputation, McCluskey-Fawcett said KU's recent high-profile accomplishments -- including reaching the national championship game in basketball, drawing a former president to the Dole Institute of Politics dedication and hiring new athletics director Lew Perkins away from the University of Connecticut -- may help KU's marks.
"It gets your name out there," she said. "The visibility of things, that kind of publicity you get -- that can help."
Kim Wilcox, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the key to improving KU's rankings in such studies as U.S. News & World Report's was to enhance individual departments.
David Shulenburger, provost and executive vice chancellor, last year asked deans to come up with a plan to elevate their schools into the top 25 in their areas of study. Many of the proposals submitted by deans for hiring new faculty members using additional tuition money have centered on their top-25 quest.
Wilcox said the magazine's rankings give KU leaders clues on how to allocate their resources. If all the top-10 philosophy departments have something in common, he said, KU might want to learn from their success.
"We're not killing ourselves to change a ranking point," he said. "But we're using that to figure out where we need to invest."
But KU administrators are quick to point out that U.S. News and World Report isn't their only measure of progress.
"We don't want to hang our hat on U.S. News and World Report," said Jim Roberts, associate vice provost. "There are a lot of ways to be in the top 25."
KU also closely tracks its progress in research rankings. KU's research expenditures continued to increase quickly between fiscal years 2000 and 2001, the latest data available, but its rankings among public research universities dropped from 44th to 45th during that time.
Another measure touted by KU has been its "best buy" status. It has been cited for that by Kaplan's "The Unofficial, Unbiased Guide to the 320 Most Interesting Colleges," "Fiske Guide to Colleges," "Barron's Best Buys in College Education," "America's 100 Best College Buys -- 2000," published by Institutional Research and Evaluation Inc.
But steep tuition increases -- rates are scheduled to more than double between 2002 and 2007 -- may threaten that reputation.
McCluskey-Fawcett noted that being a top-25 university doesn't mean much in itself. What's more important, she said, is the improvement that caused the rise in rankings.
"There's the symbolism for us having a goal of being a better teaching institution and research institution than we are," she said. "That would be an external validation."