New KU chancellor will face challenges, opportunities

In a few days, Bernadette Gray-Little will be arriving in Lawrence to assume the chancellorship of Kansas University. She will be the 17th chancellor, the first female chancellor and the first African-American chancellor at KU.

She will be facing many tough challenges, as well as many exciting opportunities.

All those interested in the continued development of the university should wish her the best in her years as chancellor. If she is successful, KU, Lawrence and the state of Kansas all will benefit.

Chancellor Gray-Little will arrive at a time when university faculty are hungry for leadership, enthusiasm and vision. Often, new chancellors, coaches or other professionals face the challenge of trying to measure up to a highly successful and popular predecessor. “He (or she) certainly has some big shoes to fill” is a statement often used to set the stage for a new chancellor, coach or other new hire following a legend in that particular position.

This is not the case at KU today. Former Chancellor Robert Hemenway served as KU’s chancellor for 14 years. He leaves his Mount Oread office with the appreciation and thanks of KU alumni and friends, but, unfortunately, he stayed a few years too long.

KU has the potential to be a better school than it is today. National rankings often are suspect, but they do present a yardstick of how others view the excellence, performance and reputation of a major university. KU has slipped in its national ranking of state-aided universities, and, although several departments at KU are looked to as tops in the country, other major schools within the university have failed to receive the ranking they should command.

KU faculty members have reason to be enthused about Gray-Little’s emphasis on the importance of excellence in the schools’ academic and research programs. She is well aware of the sharply divided interests or priorities of some KU supporters who think a successful sports program is the best way to advertise and promote the university. Others point out the primary mission of a major university is providing a stimulating environment for academic excellence and research, which, in turn, attracts top students and distinguished faculty members.

Hemenway didn’t do Gray-Little a favor by OK’ing contract extensions and bonuses for KU Athletics Director Lew Perkins. His contract now runs to 2015, with additional handsome payoffs if he stays through 2011 and 2013.

Gray-Little’s challenge in this arena is similar to the challenge President Harry Truman faced in his standoff with the great Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In the end, Truman had to make it very clear who was boss and who called the shots.

It is natural that many in Strong Hall, as well as throughout the campus, are trying to figure out how to look good in the eyes of a new chancellor. They want to impress Gray-Little and put themselves in a position to be called upon or selected by the new chancellor for roles of leadership and importance.

Gray-Little is concerned about the need for greater private fiscal support for the university’s academic side. She recognizes millions of dollars have been raised in recent years for the school’s athletic programs and she is eager to show the same, or better, results in giving for the academic side of the university.

KU is long overdue in preparing for a major capital campaign. For various reasons, officials postponed such planning, but with Gray-Little in the chancellor’s office, KU Endowment Association officials can begin more concrete planning.

Silent preplanning now is under way, but it is not likely any final decisions will be made about launching a large, perhaps $1 billion, campaign for nine months, possibly a year, when there should be a good read of how Gray-Little is being accepted by faculty, alumni, friends and potential major donors.

A chancellor plays a vital role in the success of any capital campaign at any major university.

In a way, the state of Kansas and KU face similar situations. Gov. Mark Parkinson is completing the term of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who left to take a Cabinet post in the Obama administration.

Parkinson’s term ends in January 2011, giving him only 20 months to lead the state. How much can a governor accomplish in such a short time?

Parkinson is starting off strong and he enjoys strong bipartisan support in the Legislature. He is smart, has some reachable goals and will be a hard, tireless worker. He has said he will not run for governor so he is free to do what he thinks is in the best interests of the state, not worrying about pleasing, or alienating, potential voters or major contributors.

He can set the stage and create a good climate for his successor, and in the process, do good things for the state.

Chancellor Gray-Little, 64, is likely to serve five to seven years as KU’s leader. The current national average tenure for chancellors at the nation’s major schools is about four to seven years.

She is smart, she is all business and she wants to help make KU a better university. She is not moving into the chancellor’s office to try to win a popularity contest or to use the KU job as a stepping stone for another, more prestigious, job. She wants to create a climate that gives the university’s faculty and its students an opportunity to make KU an even greater institution and build a foundation that sets the stage for her successor to help KU reach even higher levels of excellence.

Both Parkinson and Gray-Little have a relatively short time to work their magic, but both are committed, and it would be a serious mistake to bet against them.

In Gray-Little’s case, she will not make the mistake of setting high, almost unreasonable goals for national rankings for KU but rather is likely to set challenging but achievable goals that allow KU to build success upon success.

A new and unique era is about to begin at KU, one that, to a significant degree, will set the stage for the future and give the university the opportunity to become a true national leader.

Gray-Little will need, and deserves, the support of those truly interested in the welfare and future of the university.