Archive for Saturday, May 17, 2003

Commencement a time to evaluate how university stacks up

May 17, 2003


Commencement time at any school offers an opportunity for school officials, as well as any other interested individuals, to review the accomplishments or shortcomings of the school and think about the future.

Those graduating from a school, at any level, usually are challenged by a speaker to make the most of their opportunities and use the knowledge they have acquired to contribute to a better society.

It's a time for much reflection by school administrators, students, parents, financial contributors and many others. Yes, there usually is a lot of fun and happiness associated with a graduation ceremony, but behind all the surface frivolity, it is a serious time for all those associated with the academic institution.

Graduating students certainly are worried about their immediate futures, job opportunities, how to pay off debts incurred for a college education, perhaps earning advanced degrees and many other matters.

Faculty members probably wonder how long they will remain in their present positions at the school, whether it's time to consider a move, whether they like the environment in which they work, whether they are at a dead end in their academic careers and many other similar questions.

School administrators probably wonder how they are being judged by faculty leaders, students, lawmakers, major financial contributors, school trustees, regents or curators, the general public and many others who take an interest in the school.

Because graduation time usually follows on the heels of final examinations and grades, this writer thought it timely to offer a grade on Kansas University's performance during the past year. This was done several years ago and, because most grades were subjective and given without the objective yardsticks normally used to determine grades, some associated with the university were unhappy with the grades they received.

Looking back on that grade card, however, this writer doesn't have any regrets about how he graded.

It seems to this writer there ought to be some way for university officials to make a report to their "stockholders," just as any publicly owned business is required to do. It should be an honest, accurate appraisal or audit, not something that is phony and designed merely to mislead the stockholders. (There has been far too much of this in the many corporate scandals that have surfaced in recent years.)

Kansas taxpayers certainly are stockholders in KU. They deserve some kind of report on just how well the school is doing. Is the university meeting its obligations? Are members of the Kansas Board of Regents carrying out their responsibility to exercise tight oversight of the school? How is the school run and how are administrators and faculty performing?

There isn't any such report card for the public on how well KU is performing, but some areas obviously need to be included. In an informal report card, here are some of those areas and some evaluations from this writer, who tends to be a generous grader:

  • The level of state funding, which, to a large degree, determines the level of excellence of the faculty and the quality of facilities offered to faculty and students -- D+
  • The level of private fiscal support, which provides funding for those services and programs that aren't funded by the state but make the difference between an average academic institution and an outstanding school -- B
  • The products of the university. How prepared and how successful are KU graduates? -- This grade will be borne out in the years ahead.
  • The quality of research -- B
  • The quality of faculty -- B
  • Faculty morale -- C+
  • The quality of the KU student body -- B
  • The performance of university administrators -- B
  • The quality of facilities -- B-
  • The image of the university throughout the state and how relevant the school is to the well-being of Kansans -- C
  • The importance of higher education and KU in the eyes of Kansas legislators -- C
  • The level of interest and involvement the school has among its alumni -- B
  • The general mood on campus. Is there the feeling of excitement, an emphasis on excellence, vision and forward movement? Or is there inaction, shortsightedness, acceptance of mediocrity and too much time spent dealing with egos, jealousies and turf wars? -- C

Different graders probably would give KU a wide range of test scores, from A's to F's in these areas. Whatever the scores, there should be some way for taxpayers and those interested in the school to judge just how well the school is doing. This applies to KU or any other state-aided institution. Likewise, Lawrence residents should have some way to judge just how good a job the public schools are doing and the quality of teachers and administrators.

How are the public, taxpayers and legislators to know whether KU or Kansas State University is doing the best job in meeting its responsibilities? Is there excessive course duplication? Should all state-aided schools receive funding on the same general formula or should better schools with better teachers, better students, better administration, a better cost-benefit ratio, better research, better results and more relevance to the state receive more funding? Are some of the community colleges doing a better job in some areas than either KU or KSU?

Graduation time is an appropriate time to ask a lot of tough questions, but it is difficult to get much more than general answers on which to base decisions and grades.

Graduation rates, ACT and SAT scores, honors and awards to students and faculty, the level of state and private funding all combine to provide some of the facts, but much more is needed to judge just how well a school may be doing in today's challenging environment.

An increasing number of Kansans want to know just how big a bang they are getting for their education bucks. Are their dollars being spent wisely and effectively?

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