Simons: KU controversy with key searches may be ‘perfect storm’

Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self has a problem on his hands in figuring out how to get a bunch of highly skilled former high school stars to play together as a team and come up with a winning record. Self’s ability as a coach will be tested as will the players’ ability to take coaching, appreciate and recognize their new challenges and shortcomings, forget their past honors and concentrate on what is best for the team.

KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway faces even greater challenges these days in getting the university family working together to make the school an even greater academic institution.

In a way, Self has a far easier task. He is dealing with about 15 players, and if their performance doesn’t please him, he can sit them on the bench and deny them any playing time.

Hemenway has about 1,500 faculty members who believe they can say or do just about anything they want because they are university faculty. Academic freedom and tenure are supposed to protect them from any inside or outside influence, and they have other faculty members and organizations to protect and defend them against discipline. It’s pretty hard for a chancellor to “bench” faculty members.

The way things are unfolding at KU these days is unfortunate, and how these situations are handled will be extremely important to the future of KU.

Right now, KU has major vacancies in its academic organization. The school is looking for a new provost, the second most important position on the campus, the individual who is supposed to handle most of the school’s internal matters. He or she also serves as a front person for the chancellor in times of trouble and is in charge of the academic program.

The university is looking for a new dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the largest school on the campus with more than 15,000 students and more than 50 academic programs. In addition, the School of Law is looking for a new dean, as is the School of Social Welfare. The university also is seeking a new director for its library system.

Added to this is the current problem involving a faculty member in the department of religious studies who has made some highly offensive statements about Catholics and Jews as well as remarks about those who question evolution or believe in creationism or intelligent design. His thoughts on these matters have been expressed in a number of e-mails and have triggered so much controversy that the teacher issued a statement saying he had withdrawn the course he planned to teach.

In his e-mails, associate professor Paul Mirecki seemed to be thumbing his nose at those who disagreed with his thoughts about intelligent design and displaying little concern about upsetting Catholics and Jews. To an outsider, it looks as if this Harvard Ph.D. is seeking a strong reaction and relishing the attention he has drawn.

Hemenway said, “I want to be clear that I personally find Professor Mirecki’s e-mail comments repugnant and vile. They do not represent my views nor the views of this university.”

Does a faculty member such as Mirecki realize the pressure such actions place on a chancellor? The chancellor, other administrators and certainly faculty members all believe in freedom of expression and they will fight for this right. A university is supposed to be a “free marketplace of ideas.” However, there is a smart way and a dumb way to express ideas, and Mirecki certainly chose, perhaps deliberately, the dumb way and, in so doing, has caused a firestorm.

The large majority of off-campus people also believe in the importance of academic freedom, but there are limits. Mirecki’s e-mails tested these limits, so much so that legislators and others who care greatly about the university have gotten into the act.

It is a mess and does not reflect admirably on KU. Maybe Mirecki doesn’t care. It is questionable whether his decision to withdraw his course and make a public apology was his own genuine desire or was “encouraged” by others. Only he and the “others” know.

There are others on the campus who believe in evolution over intelligent design just as fervently as Mirecki does, but they express their beliefs in a far smarter manner. As one university faculty member told this writer, “many faculty members are naive, innocent and are living in a different world. They are not evil, just stupid, but they shouldn’t be punished just because they are stupid.”

The Mirecki matter is not going to go away. It will ricochet around the campus, in Topeka and throughout the state for some time. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when KU is trying to attract top-flight men and women to fill the position of provost and other top positions. What must people considering a move to Mount Oread be thinking about the Mirecki situation and the accompanying uproar? Could they change their minds?

Added to this is the convoluted matter in which KU officials are going about filling these important positions.

What possible College dean, law school dean or social welfare dean could be comfortable about taking a job at KU without knowing who the provost is going to be? This person calls the shots on the university’s academic program. What is his or her background and record before coming to KU? What does he or she emphasize in the academic arena and how does this person lead others? How does he or she deal with the public, the chancellor, state legislators, regents or curators? What does he or she think about diversity and any number of other issues?

KU seems to be going about this somewhat backward. Interviews are to start next week for the dean of the College. Doesn’t it seem these people might like to know who their boss is going to be? Are they supposed to take the word of someone on the search committee that says, “don’t worry; we’ll get a good provost for you”?

Why wouldn’t it be smart to hire the provost first and let that person be involved in the hiring of the other administrators? What KU is doing is like hiring a bunch of assistant coaches before they hire a head coach. They are asking assistant coaches to agree to a contract without knowing who will be their boss and asking the new head coach to accept a bunch of assistants he knows nothing about.

It doesn’t make sense, and it gives KU faculty, prospective new faculty members and the public reason to wonder about the recruiting effort and whether the university is going after the very best person for each open position.

Unfortunately, the current situation at KU resembles the “perfect storm” with many dangerous, potentially deadly, conditions converging at the same time: five terribly important openings, a poorly orchestrated hiring schedule and a faculty member who has triggered a controversy on academic freedom and possible legislative intervention.

As this column pointed out several weeks ago, KU seems to be on the brink of either achieving even greater academic excellence or falling into a slide toward mediocrity.