Earlier this week, a group of Kansas University faculty members and their spouses gathered to visit and reminisce with each other, former KU chancellors Archie Dykes and Gene Budig and former Kansas Board of Regents Chairman Clay Blair. The evening meeting also was an opportunity to talk about current projects as well as reflect on the university.
This was not just any group of teachers and researchers but a very special group. In fact, this assemblage represents KU's true No. 1 team.
In an era when the public is obsessed with rankings, whether it is America's most poorly dressed high-profile women, which school has the nation's best basketball or football team or whether a university is going up or down in the U.S. News and World Report rankings of colleges and universities, these professors are the university's all-stars.
These men and women have been designated as "distinguished professors," the highest academic recognition bestowed on a KU teacher or researcher.
These men and women are recognized not only as among America's finest and most talented teachers and researchers; many are looked upon as among the world's foremost experts in their respective fields.
And yet - and it is an unfortunate sign of the times - the names of many KU football and basketball players are better known by the majority of KU students than the names of KU's outstanding professors.
This situation is not unique to the KU scene but probably is true at the majority of state universities around the country. But does it always have to be this way?
What is the real purpose of a state-aided university? Isn't it to provide the best possible learning environment for young men and women, to stimulate these students to take advantage of the facilities offered by the state's taxpayers and private contributors? Isn't it for them to use this relatively short time on campus to gain the tools to be highly productive, effective and motivated members of today's society ready to make a difference, a truly BIG difference and make this a better place to live?
It would be interesting to know how many KU distinguished professors could be named by local townspeople or alumni around the state compared to the names of KU football and basketball players. Granted, one of the main reasons for this is that the media do not give the same attention and space to distinguished faculty members that they do to sports stars and professional athletes making millions of dollars.
The fact is, although they are not going to say anything publicly about the situation, there is a natural disappointment or frustration among some, or many, of the professors that they are not appreciated for what they bring to the university and that they are not used in a manner that could add to the excellence of the university.
It also should be noted that a speaker at the Tuesday meeting called attention to the fact that probably 100 percent of those at the gathering had received highly attractive offers of better-paying jobs at other campuses or research facilities but had elected to stay at KU. He said, "KU is fortunate, Lawrence and the state of Kansas are fortunate to have the loyalty and commitment of these men and women."
A growing number of KU faculty members and a surprising number of those at the Tuesday meeting are concerned that KU administrators seem to be spending as much, if not more, time worrying about athletics than they are about academic challenges and opportunities. Some say the situation is almost unhealthy.
Certainly there are many specific matters that can be pointed to where those in administrative positions are engaged in high-profile academic events, such as this week's opening of the Confucius Institute at the KU Edwards Campus in Overland Park.
Others, however, note that at major universities recognized for their academic excellence, but also their excellent athletic teams, the chancellors and presidents make it clear that athletics better not get out of hand and that athletics are not the tail that wags the university.
Another concern of some of the distinguished professors was the belief that KU has lost much of the swagger it enjoyed when they first arrived on campus. They said: "There was a swagger, a sense or knowledge that KU was good and they were proud of it. These feelings permeated the campus. We were the flagship institution of the Big Eight Conference. We were the best in many fields, and now, other schools have caught up with us or, worse, they have passed us. Where is the old swagger?" several professors asked. "We need to get it back."
Those at the Tuesday affair were (leaving off the academic or medical "Dr." titles they all carry): Marc Asher, William Barnett, Ronald Borchardt, Jonathan Boyarin, Daryle Busch, Jonathan Clark, George Coggins, David Darwin, Richard DeGeorge, Martin Dickinson, Charles Eldredge, Steven Epstein, Joseph Evans, Stephen Fawcett, George Frederickson, Victor Frost, Gunda Georg, Robert Glicksman, Robert Goldstein, Don Green, Susan Harris, Michael Hoeflich, Joan Hunt, Susan Kemper, Barbara Kerr, Curtis Klaassen, Joseph Lutkenhaus, Keith Meyer, Elias Michaelis, Lester Mitscher, Joane Nagel, Allan Pasco, Mabel Rice, Stanley Rolfe, Richard Schowen, Sam Shanmugan, Prakash Shenoy, Donald Steeples, Valentino Stella, Marilyn Stokstad, Randall Van Schmus, Paul Willhite and George Wilson.
Other KU distinguished professors who were out of town or unable to attend were: Raj Bhala, George Bittlingmayer, Shih-I Chu, Bernard Cornet, J.C. Costa, Prasad Gogineni, Jared Grantham, Craig Huneke, Chuan-Tau Lan, Dennis Lane, Wojcieh Lesnikowski, Kenneth Mackenzie, Charles Middaugh, Elinor Schroeder, Bala Subramaniam, Karan Surana, Thomas Taylor, Barbara Timmermann and Donald Worster.
These are names - and people - you should get to know.