Archive for Saturday, October 1, 2005

Simons: Timing important to administrator’s decision to step aside

October 1, 2005


David Shulenburger's decision to step aside as provost at Kansas University is sure to trigger many questions. Chances are, there will be varied reactions to his decision to return to teaching in the School of Business.

Saturday Columns

Shulenburger has been provost and executive vice chancellor since 2002. He was named vice chancellor for academic affairs in 1993 and became provost in 1996.

According to the 60-year-old administrator, only one other provost in the Association of American Universities has been in his position longer than Shulenburger. It is a tough, demanding and tiring position and one not designed to make friends.

The way the current administration is set up at KU, Shulenburger is "Mr. Inside" while Chancellor Robert Hemenway is "Mr. Outside." Mr. Inside takes care of most of the dirty, unpleasant, less attractive jobs while Mr. Outside deals with legislators and alumni and serves as the unofficial main lobbyist for the university. In general terms, his job is to sell the university to any and all outside audiences, while the provost oversees the internal operation of the school.

Dealing with the egos, turf wars and jealousies on a university campus is not an easy assignment, and the way the system is set up at KU, most internal decisions must pass through the provost's office.

This has caused many, both on and off campus, to complain that things do not get done as quickly or easily at KU as on other campuses. These critics claim the provost's office creates a bottleneck that often becomes plugged, delaying action on projects that some say deserve far quicker attention.

Shulenburger's reputation among a sizable number of faculty members is that he is more likely to quickly say "no" to requests than to approach issues with an attitude of "let's see if this might work."

It would be difficult to be in the provost's chair without stepping on toes and making enemies. Most everyone on campus thinks they deserve more personal support, better fiscal support, more space and better equipment. There is never enough money to meet the needs, and it is likely most faculty members feel they are underappreciated.

However, this all goes with the job, and Shulenburger should have known what he was getting into when he accepted the post. At least he knows today, and that probably is why so few provosts serve as long as Shulenburger has on Mount Oread.

This raises the question of how long a person should serve in a position like the provost's job or other senior executive jobs on a university campus.

Obviously, there is no perfect answer. However, the age-old advice, "It is far better to leave five minutes too early than to stay five minutes too long," would seem to apply to the academic administration community, just as it does to most other businesses or personal activities.

It is far better to have people saying someone has left a position too soon than to have people saying "why does he stay so long?"

After awhile, new ideas, new approaches, new enthusiasm and a younger, more current viewpoint are needed in most any job or business. And how long can an individual perform at maximum levels of excellence? People can wear out.

One of the first questions asked when Shulenburger's decision was announced was "Why?" followed by "Was this his own decision or was he asked to leave?"

The odds are maybe 90 percent that the decision was Shulenburger's, but there's always the possibility Chancellor Hemenway discussed the matter with his top associate and said something like, "David, this must be your decision, but you have given far more than average service to the institution." Perhaps he didn't say, "David, I want you, need you, to remain as provost."

Hemenway himself probably thinks about how long he should remain as KU's chancellor. It, too, is a tough, demanding job, and he is approaching the average tenure mark of previous KU chancellors.

KU currently is looking for deans for the School of Law and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and, now, a new provost. These are major holes to fill and deserve the best efforts of those serving on the respective search committees. There must be a commitment to excellence in seeking candidates for these openings. The selections cannot be based on taking the easiest, most popular and politically correct action. Members of the three search committees should seek the very best candidates, people who are happy and highly successful in their current jobs, rather than hiring someone who is out of work, looking for a job or unhappy where he or she currently works.

Shulenburger deserves thanks for the service he has provided the university. Over the past 13 years, as the school's top academic chief, along with the bruises absorbed as "Mr. Inside," he probably hasn't received many expressions of appreciation.

It appears he realizes the importance of stepping aside, perhaps a bit earlier than necessary rather than staying too long. Although, to be honest, some say this has indeed been the case. Nevertheless, Shulenburger has made the decision to leave Strong Hall, and it is hoped the personable educator will enjoy a less stressful, more enjoyable and fulfilling career as a classroom teacher in the School of Business.

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