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Archive for Saturday, August 30, 2003

Rankings may have flaws, but why is KU losing ground?

August 30, 2003

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Right or wrong, justified or not, Americans seem obsessed with numbers. Whether it's football teams, universities, clothes, actors, musicians, cars -- about anything -- they want to know who is the best and who is the worst.

It is healthy, to a certain degree, to be competitive, to try to achieve, to be as good as possible and to be a leader in whatever endeavor or activity a person might pursue.

Excellence is the yardstick by which most everything is measured, whether it is the classroom, the quality of manufactured products, the efficiency or accuracy of all types of equipment, and on and on. There are not many awards for mediocrity or failing scores in any category.

Students with better grades are far more likely to be admitted to the elite colleges and universities. Good schools with good faculty and good students are far more likely to attract more research dollars and, in turn, better faculty and students. Good athletic programs are more likely to attract more fans in the stands and better athletes and better coaches. Again this takes place in every facet of our society, and how an individual, a school, a business, a city, a state, a hospital, an athletic team, a doctor, a lawyer, a commercial product or any other entity is ranked in comparison with those in the same field of activity does play a terribly important role.

It should be remembered a great deal of ranking or grading is fairly subjective and often is based on personal likes and dislikes, personal biases or other less-than-objective measurements.

At the same time, it is interesting and should be of concern that Kansas University has dropped the past several years in the U.S. News and World Report's ranking of "America's Best Colleges." Justified or not, this magazine's annual ranking is looked to by students, parents, faculty members, state legislators, guidance counselors, businesses and others to help them make decisions on where they would like to go to school, teach or even direct private donations or research grants.

A few years ago, KU was looked upon as the flagship institution of the former Big Eight Conference. KU was an early member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, one of the few in the Big Eight. Other facets of the university, such as the KU school of medicine, also have been recognized for their excellence.

However, in recent years, KU has been dropping in the U.S. News rankings and, in the eyes of many, no longer is the flagship academic institution among the former Big Eight schools and certainly is an also-ran among Big 12 universities.

All this has happened during the time Chancellor Robert Hemenway has been setting a goal of KU being recognized as one of the nation's top 25 public universities and eventually being recognized as being among the top 25 of all U.S. universities, public and private. Rather than climbing the ladder, KU has been dropping.

This fall from higher rankings also comes at a time when the KU Endowment Association and the university are engaged in a capital campaign called KU FIRST with a goal of raising $500 million. It is important to note that even with the less-than-ideal economic conditions, those involved in this effort report they are getting close to reaching the target. Alumni and friends of the school continue to be generous to KU.

There is increasing concern by many about why KU's academic ranking appears to be dropping and why schools that have trailed KU in the past now have passed it on the U.S. News list. Again, rankings can be very subjective, but even so, KU has dropped three years in a row.

KU officials suggest the lack of state fiscal support is a primary, if not THE primary, reason for KU's slide. Private fiscal support has remained strong. Something, however, is happening to handicap KU's reputation for academic excellence. Is the state trying to fund too many colleges and universities?

Although final enrollment totals for the current semester at KU will not be available for several weeks, it appears KU is a good school and a good bargain in the eyes of students. Other nearby schools are reporting record enrollments and it is hoped KU will follow this trend rather than reporting a significant drop. Tuition has been raised the past two years at KU, and reports indicate there will be another jump of somewhere between 15 and 20 percent next year. This is the same situation at most public universities these days, so the popularity of the school, evidenced by enrollment totals, apparently cannot be tied to tuition.

Has KU's academic excellence declined compared to its sister schools in the conference? Has it dropped in comparison to its peer institutions? The answer is yes, but why?

Is it merely a lack of funding by the state, or is it low faculty morale, a poor football record the past few years, questionable leadership at all levels of the administration, a drop-out rate that is too high, poor alumni support, a decline in faculty excellence, a lack of enthusiasm and excitement among students, faculty, alumni and friends, low SAT and ACT scores for entering freshmen or what? There must be some reason or a combination of reasons.

KU alumni and friends, surely KU students, faculty members and administrators, want to be known and recognized as winners -- if not the top, darned near the top. Chancellor Hemenway has made it clear this is his goal. In fact, he wants this excellence as much or more than anyone. Those interested in KU don't want the school to be recognized as merely being average or mediocre.

All kinds of meetings and gatherings have been held across the state in recent months and weeks to try to figure out what can be done to improve higher education in Kansas. Similar meetings are scheduled for the coming weeks, prior to the start of the Kansas Legislature's session in January. There also are meetings and much conversation relative to KU's apparent slide and what can be done to reverse this trend.

It's good there is such concern and interest rather than an attitude of acceptance and a do-nothing approach to the challenge. There may be businesses, activities, etc., in which being at the top or near the top is not that important, but not in education.

Loyal, interested, involved and concerned members of the greater Kansas University community do not want to settle for second best. They want to be among the best because they know that in education, excellence is what counts.

Today's question among KU loyalists, is what has to happen, what has to be done to return KU to the ranks of the very best. Once the momentum in this goal is lost, it is doubly difficult to regain the drive, enthusiasm and commitment to achieve this lofty recognition.

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