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Archive for Saturday, October 22, 2005

Simons: Key vacancies put KU on brink of greatness or mediocrity

October 22, 2005

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How many major state-aided universities have experienced such a mass exodus of senior administration officials in such a short time as has Kansas University?

Saturday Columns

Currently, KU officials are looking for a provost (the second most important position on campus), a dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a dean for the School of Law, a dean for the School of Social Welfare, a dean of libraries and an associate vice provost for student success (the position that replaces the former dean of students).

This either says KU has a tremendously talented group of senior officials who are in high demand by other schools or that something is wrong at KU. It's probably somewhere in between.

Regardless of the reasons for these vacancies, it should be clear to everyone interested in the welfare of the school that this is a critical time for the university. In addition, it is a critical time for the state and its young people.

What kinds of individuals will the various search committees recommend to fill these important positions? What are the guidelines given to those serving on these committees? What limits have been placed on their efforts? Are there salary limits?

In previous searches for top officials in the school's athletic department, the No. 1 goal was to go for the best. This certainly was the case when KU hired Roy Williams and when KU hired Bill Self to replace the tremendously successful Williams. KU wanted the best basketball coach it could find.

If it is wise to seek the best in sports, why not seek the best for the academic side of the university? If money can be found to lure top KU coaches and if highly successful records are a requirement, shouldn't the same reasoning be applied to KU's academic community?

Although most KU faculty members prefer to remain silent, there is great concern among this fraternity about what has happened at KU and what kind of individuals will be selected to fill these important posts. It should be remembered that chairs of the selection committees do not choose their own committees. Someone else decides who and why certain individuals are placed on each committee.

As has been noted previously in this column, it is important that search committee members aim high, very high, in finding individuals to move into the vacant KU posts. This is not the time to fill these holes with the least expensive, most politically correct or most easily available candidate.

One of KU's most respected faculty members, a teacher and researcher with an international reputation, wrote this writer about the current situation at KU.

He stated, "I write of brinks and aspirations. KU is on the brink.

"The brink of either a much brighter future than it could have imagined even a year ago, or of a continued slide toward mediocrity."

He cited the simultaneous vacancies for his concern and said, "Unless KU's search committees, and even more importantly, the chancellor himself, make every effort to recruit from universities that are academically stronger than KU, and unless the university's endowment association pledges a substantial sum to enhance the salaries of those five positions so they will be financially attractive to the best and brightest (and younger-ish) of our stronger, competitor peer universities, we will stay as we are, and that is an unacceptable consequence of a rare opportunity."

Noting KU's efforts in securing the top athletic department officials, the letter writer added, "Sadly, the academic leadership of KU has not, as a general rule, done likewise with respect to the most-senior academic officer positions.

"The consequences are clear," he added.

The letter writer, one of the most loyal, devoted members of the faculty, stressed his strong feelings that those considered for the vacant KU positions should be the senior individual or in a strong No. 2 position in a particular academic discipline, that no one from inside the KU academic community should be considered unless all other options have been exhausted, and that the salary levels for the new hires should be considerably higher than what those vacating their positions were paid.

It would seem the provost position should be the No. 1 priority in that the excellence and record of this individual will set the tone for other selections. Wouldn't someone thinking about the law school or social welfare positions want to know what kind of person has been selected as the second most powerful individual on campus? The same logic would seem to apply to the dean of libraries.

In the eyes of many, KU is indeed at a "brink." Given the wonderful and relatively rare opportunity to fill a number of extremely important positions within a short time period, KU can attract individuals who bring great academic credentials to the university. Such hires will help elevate the school to even higher levels of excellence and attract better and stronger faculty members and students. Or it can settle for nice, but rather ordinary, individuals who do not inspire, excite or generate much enthusiasm among the faculty, not to mention among students, alumni and friends.

KU is a top-flight state-aided university, but even the most ardent supporter would have to admit it can be better. And it should be better, given the history of the school, the excellence of many on the campus and the extraordinary loyalty and support the school enjoys from its alumni.

Given its position on the "brink," what will KU's course be in the coming years? Greater excellence and great vision or a willingness to be merely one of the pack of average state-aided universities?

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