Kansas University officials are facing an important, perhaps even critical, question that will affect the university, Lawrence, the state of Kansas and the surrounding area: What do they intend to do with the Dole Institute of Politics?
Do they plan to allow this new, shining star of the university to fade into an average, run-of-the-mill government/political science program housed in a spectacular building, or do they intend to reignite the enthusiasm, vision and excellence that briefly was the hallmark of the institute?
Under the leadership of Richard Norton Smith, the Dole Institute became a symbol of excitement, activity and excellence with the potential of becoming a national and world leader in the area of civil, bipartisan, respectful discussion of national and world issues.
Smith left the directorship of the institute in late 2003, after two years of leading the planning and development of the institute.
It was Smith's decision to leave, although there are many stories floating around about why he left. The fact is, he found it difficult, given certain situations at the university, to build the institute and its programming to the level of excellence he envisioned.
The challenge facing KU officials today is to decide what kind of new director they want to follow Smith. Law Dean Stephen McAllister has been pinch-hitting since Smith's departure, dividing his time between his law school responsibilities and the Dole Institute. McAllister is talented and highly respected, but he has made the decision to focus his efforts on the law school rather than taking the directorship of the Dole Institute.
A well-known individual was recruited for the Dole job, but, after considerable thought and study, he thanked university officials for the opportunity but declined the offer.
Now, the institute is treading water. In fact, the institute is dropping, abandoning or altering programs that brought national distinction to the institute, the university, Lawrence, the state and the surrounding area.
For example, the Presidential Lecture Series is a thing of the past. In 2002, this series attracted sell-out crowds to the KU campus to hear Edmund Morris, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan; Michael Beschloss, author of a trilogy based on Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes; and David McCullough, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams.
The next year, the series featured Robert Caro, another two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his biographies on Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses; Roger Wilkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his Watergate-related editorials when he was with the Washington Post and former publisher of the NAACP journal Crisis; David Gergen, an adviser for presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton and currently an editor at U.S. News and World Report; and Richard Norton Smith, nationally known authority on U.S. presidents who spoke on "Ten Rules to Judge a President."
This program has been abandoned because, according to some at KU, the lecture series is "not sustainable."
It is estimated the first year's lecture series cost less than $100,000 and that second-year expenses totaled in the area of $50,000.
Does "not sustainable" mean the university is not able to afford the program, or does it not rank high enough in the priorities of the university? Does this mean there are no companies or individuals willing to contribute to funding the program or that university officials prefer to expend their efforts in a different direction? Or is there some other reason?
What is going to happen to the Dole Lecture, this year delivered by former President Bill Clinton? Clinton didn't charge a fee for his appearance as a gesture of friendship to the institute's namesake, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, who has agreed to be a speaker at Clinton's library at a future date.
Sen. Dole is the reason Clinton agreed to the Dole Institute appearance. What happens when Dole is not around? Who will have the clout to secure top speakers? Will there be money to pay the high fees charged by such guests?
Someone at KU must decide what the university is looking for in the new Dole Institute director. Perhaps the Kansas Board of Regents should play a role in determining the importance of the institute to the university and the state, thereby signaling the level of excellence of qualities it thinks are needed in a director.
What happens to the Dole Leadership Prize, which was awarded last year to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani? Word is that former Sen. George McGovern is slated to receive this award, but this was arranged some time ago. What happens after McGovern?
These signature events focused tremendous area and national attention on the university, the institute and the state.
KU is placing incredible emphasis now on its public image, the "branding" of the school and trying to standardize all university-related printed materials, as well as the colors of KU sports gear. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been and will be spent in trying to do a better job of telling KU's story. This is important, but what is going to be more important in calling public attention to KU, making sure all the lettering on printed materials is the same and all the KU sports teams wear the same colors, or bringing speakers like those mentioned above to the KU campus?
To get a top-flight director for the Dole Institute, if that is the goal of university officials, it seems there are some questions or situations that must be addressed and agreed upon:
l There must be a credible plan to raise money for the institute. How much money has been raised since Smith's departure?
l What priority or importance does the chancellor give to the Dole Institute?
l The Dole Institute does not have its own constituency, such as a school within the university and, consequently, there must be a commitment by KU and/or the KU Endowment Association to raise the funds necessary to operate the institute in a first-class manner.
l The Dole Institute cannot operate in a vacuum. But at the same time, its director should answer only to the chancellor's office, rather than to other departments or schools. There should be a small but powerful board of advisers or trustees to help the director.
l Some suggest three steps or "legs" are necessary to find a superior director: select a director, define the program and raise the funds. These three legs all are necessary to support a successful effort.
l There must be more than verbal promises of what will be done, and it is likely a full-time fund-raiser would be needed.
If there had been a full-time fund-raiser, chances are there would be money available to continue the Presidential Lecture Series, as well as set aside funds for other purposes.
Abandoning the Presidential Lecture Series is an embarrassing public admission that the university lacks the commitment to continue the program.
The current situation at the institute might be termed by some as "growing pains," but the longer the institute lacks a visionary leader and adequate funding, the less likely it is the university will be able to attract a leader in the class of Richard Norton Smith. Who knows? Maybe that's the goal of some at KU.
The role and public respect of Bob Dole cannot be overstated. Consider his national image, the role he played last week in the dedication ceremonies of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Who at KU could have gotten Clinton to come to the university to deliver a lecture at no charge? The institute has the opportunity to use Dole and the Dole name to help build itself into a true national, international, nonpartisan center for study and to emphasize that public service is a noble endeavor.
The Dole Institute should be a top priority for KU officials and, if this is indeed the case, no time should be wasted in creating a well-financed structure with exciting goals that will attract superior candidates for the director's job.
Anything less will be a sad admission that KU officials and/or alumni are content to let the institute be a mediocre effort that fails to add to the university's image and prestige.