Former chancellors say next KU leader will need financial acumen

Previous Kansas University chancellors say the school’s next leader should come to Mount Oread with a record of stellar academic standing, astute political skills and, perhaps most of all, both a strong willingness and proven ability to secure necessary resources.

That’s cash — the money necessary to keep research rolling, faculty and staff working and students learning despite an deepening economic recession and ongoing eroding of state support for higher education.

“That’s going to be the challenge, and how you pick for that challenge is not entirely clear to me right now — unless you know of a Barack Obama that wants to be a university president,” said Larry Chalmers, who served as KU chancellor from 1969 to 1972. “But it is that kind of ability to gain universal support in difficult times that you’ll need.”

The search for such an individual will fall to members of the Kansas Board of Regents, now that Robert Hemenway has announced plans to retire in June as chancellor, after 14 years at KU’s administrative helm. He plans to take a yearlong sabbatical to write a book, then return to teaching.

Others who preceded Hemenway in the second-floor office at Strong Hall offer praise for the outgoing chancellor’s work. Chalmers noted that Hemenway’s longevity “speaks for itself.” Archie Dykes, chancellor from 1973 to 1980, applauded Hemenway’s “focus on classroom teaching, which I think is very important,” and for boosting levels of outside grants and contracts.

Added Gene Budig, who preceded Hemenway by serving as KU chancellor from 1981 to 1994: “Chancellor Hemenway has served long and well, and he richly deserves an opportunity to teach and write. His long tenure underscores his deep commitment to students, faculty, staff and alumni. He has earned our thanks and lasting respect.”

Looking ahead, Dykes said, the next chancellor will need to be a “capable academic leader,” someone poised to lead KU to greater academic stature. That’s first and foremost.

But getting there, he said, means generating both private and public support.

“The fundraising is more important now more than ever,” Dykes said. “The academic achievement will depend more than ever … on the ability to raise financial support for the institution.”

Thankfully, Dykes said, KU is connected with an exceptional endowment association, one whose breadth of resources and longtime commitment to excellence should prove attractive to job candidates.

“It has enormous capabilities,” said Dykes, who now serves on several corporate boards, including Pepsi Americas. “I would expect that would be one of the first qualities that KU would mention.”

Chalmers, who served as president of the Art Institute of Chicago after leaving KU, said that the next chancellor’s focus likely would be dominated by financial unrest, not unlike the social unrest he’d faced as chancellor during the Vietnam era.

“It has to be somebody who can gain a rapport with the students and faculty and the governing board, because that’s the only way you can make tough decisions,” Chalmers said. “And it’s not entirely fun to eliminate programs or cut back on staff or any of the other things that are usually associated with balancing a budget.”

And those decisions are coming, he said.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Chalmers said.