Where is Kansas University headed?
Next weekend, directors and trustees of the KU Endowment Association and members of the KU Chancellors Club will meet in Lawrence. This weekend, KU Alumni Association directors are holding their meeting here. The membership of these three organizations represents KU's most loyal, enthusiastic, generous and supportive group of alumni and friends.
Over this weekend and next weekend, these individuals who bleed KU crimson and blue will be told many noteworthy things about their beloved university. They will learn about the accomplishments of faculty and students, about record private fiscal support, new grants, the academic excellence of students, the growth of their respective organizations and many other statistics and yardsticks that show KU is a top-flight university striving to get better.
Alumni and friends will be thanked for their continued support for the school and their generosity, which help make up for the steady decline in the percentage of university operations covered by state funds. They also will be told it is critical that private support be increased if KU is to keep pace with its peer institutions. They will be told the degree of private giving makes the difference between KU being an average school and one that excels. Plans are being formulated for the next capital campaign.
But behind all the good news and optimism presented to these loyal alumni, there are some disturbing situations.
Recent news reports have addressed rising tuition costs at KU. University officials acknowledge the increasing costs but justify these increases by pointing out that KU remains "a good bargain" and is about in the middle of what other comparable schools charge. Those off the campus and away from Lawrence certainly have heard the concern about the price tag to attend KU.
School officials recently were quick to share a statistic that more than 50 percent of KU seniors claimed they would graduate without any debt. In the eyes of some, this indicated university officials believe they can impose substantial increases without too much damage or too many complaints. One knowledgeable observer - noting the school's plan to have a tuition system that will give parents and students a road map of what tuition increases they can expect over a four- or five-year period - claimed it will take an initial tuition jump of 15 to 20 percent to reach the "platform" or "base" tuition that school officials hope to use.
Some observers have said it is likely that the parents of a large percentage of the students graduating without debt have gone into debt during their children's time at KU in order to free their children from the heavy burden of a sizable debt upon graduation.
There are many good things that could be listed about KU; this is to be expected. The concern is whether KU is doing all it can to take advantage of its many assets. Just concentrating on the good things, the successes, while ignoring the problems, weaknesses and vulnerabilities is terribly dangerous.
Copying the basketball strategy of playing a "four-corner offense" to keep from losing or to protect a lead is not going to get the job done. Some at KU are accused of playing this "four-corner" game.
Some of the concerns include vision and leadership, the arrogance exhibited by some in the higher circle of KU leadership, the weakness of the Kansas Board of Regents, the growing concern by many in the Legislature concerning KU's performance, rising tuition and whether KU is pricing itself out of contention for many worthy Kansas students, the attitude of some at KU that they know what is best for the university and state and they should not be questioned by outsiders, and an assortment of other major and minor challenges.
Again, KU is a good school with a proud record, and many of those attending the alumni and endowment association gatherings have played a major role in recent years in helping sustain KU's strengths.
But, as is the case on any university or college campus, although faculty and administrators talk about wanting to build the institution into an even finer center for learning and research, it must be remembered a university campus is a business, just like any business. And in the university business, employees want to protect their turf; they do not want major changes that might alter their security or importance, and they will resist someone coming in and taking their job.
It's a business where many of the employees have tenure and cannot be terminated without very specific conditions and justifications and, even then, few tenured employees ever are fired.
A great percentage of "outsiders" viewing this university business are too comfortable with their alma mater. It's a fine institution. It has been a leader and they are convinced it will continue to be a leader. They are not going to let a few negative situations color their thinking or cause them to question what is happening on Mount Oread. In their eyes, KU can do nothing wrong, and, at times, they live in a world of past memories, not aware or refusing to accept some current day realities.
Again, those on the alumni board, the endowment trustees and the members of the Chancellors Club have every right to be proud and protective of their school and its past record. But they need to think about the future, the competition, current and future needs of the institution and what will be needed to not only keep KU competitive but raise it to an even higher level of academic excellence.
KU alumni and friends have and will continue to play a major role in the future of the university. Their concerns and interests, their ability to influence others such as state legislators, regents and potential donors all will be even more important to KU's future.
Performance, not rosy or self-serving press releases, is what counts. KU must be aware of the growing competition of Kansas State University, just a few miles to the west on Interstate 70 and a few miles east at its new beachhead in Johnson County.
Something needs to be done to reduce the intensity of the civil war between the KU Medical Center and the KU Hospital in Kansas City. It's not good and, here again, turf wars and egos are a huge problem. It appears some at the medical center, with the help and encouragement of some people in Kansas City, Mo., were trying to form an association among KU, St. Luke's Hospital and Children's Mercy Hospital without telling legislators and others. That's not the way to build confidence.
Those serving as alumni association directors, endowment association trustees and Chancellors Club members deserve the thanks and appreciation of all those interested in the betterment of the university. But the next five or 10 years will require better performance by everyone - both on and off the campus - who is interested in the school. It is not enough to try to buy time and play it safe and conservative by using a "four-corner" offense. KU needs to pursue an aggressive, effective offense, and all the players should be expected to measure up to all challenges and responsibilities of this game.