There are dozens of academic units, thousands of faculty and staff, and tens of thousands of students at Kansas University.
So as a new era of the university begins, with Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, taking over the helm, what is the true state of KU?
We asked a variety of people involved in the university — students, faculty, staff retirees alumni and others — for their input.
What do you think? Include your own answers to these questions at below in the comments area.
What do you think are KU’s top strengths?
former interim chancellor and longtime faculty member
KU is fortunate to possess many of the traditional strengths of excellent public universities: a generally high-quality faculty, many strong students and a dedicated staff. Special strengths include some top-ranked academic programs such as special education, pharmaceutical chemistry, journalism and public administration. Somewhat unique to KU are the excellent and growing Honors Program and the numerous opportunities for study abroad — both of which owe much to the leadership and vision of Chancellor Franklin Murphy and Dean George Waggoner. We also benefit from an athletics program that is competitive in the Big 12 and features athletes who, overall, perform well academically. An additional strength is the improving relationship between KU-Lawrence and the KU Medical Center, which further strengthens our case for designation as a National Cancer Center. And of course, many of these strengths are highly dependent on the existence of exceptional endowment and alumni staff, and alumni whose loyalty to KU is unquestionably one of our greatest strengths.
president, Faculty Senate, and professor of education
I think KU has a strong sense of culture and tradition, a sincere concern for the teaching mission of the institution and the welfare of its students and a faculty that is deeply committed to teaching, research and service. From a faculty governance perspective, I would say we have a very strong tradition of shared governance, and I hope that this continues.
president, Endacott Society, KU’s retired faculty and staff organization
KU’s greatest strengths are its teachers and researchers. I believe Kansas and KU students get much more than they pay for from KU’s faculty, and it shows in the classroom and in research results.
Teaching has always been a much stronger focus at KU than at most other research universities. It shows, for example, in a tradition that most administrators, often including chancellors, have continued to teach.
president, Student Senate, and senior from Lawrence
KU has so many strengths it would be hard for me to enumerate them all here, so I will hit on the three strengths that are most important to me:
l Student voice in university governance. When we travel to student government conferences or speak with students from other schools, they are always amazed at how much input we are given within the shared governance system at KU. Having students who are dedicated enough to give of their time to make this system possible is a testament to the value of KU and the quality of student it attracts.
l Academics. Students have numerous academic resources to take advantage of at KU. From seemingly endless stacks of books in the libraries to faculty who are nationally respected experts within their fields, KU is replete with academic tools. My most memorable academic opportunity I have taken advantage of is a winter break study abroad to Costa Rica with professor Mary Klayder. On this trip, we had the opportunity to learn about the culture, study travel writing and get to know Mary on a more personal level, about her experiences with Costa Rica, travel writing and KU in general.
l Sports. Go anywhere in the country, and everyone knows about KU basketball. More recently, everyone knows about KU football, too. Having a nationally renowned athletics program is something that few schools enjoy, and at KU of course we have football and basketball, but we have so much more, too. KU’s numerous sports teams (and athletic bands) provide abundant activities for students and a huge collective self-esteem boost for the Lawrence community as a whole.
Why do/did you work for KU?
president, University Support Staff Senate, and custodial supervisor
Like many people who come to Lawrence and graduate from KU, there is a reluctance to sever the ties with such a great place and great community. My ex-wife and I made the decision to try and stay in this area. KU provided me the opportunity. I began work as a student employee while finishing my degree, and it evolved into a career. It is not the career I expected, but it has nevertheless been rewarding in many ways. The most basic one is (and I think there are a lot of staff who feel this way) that I am contributing to the advancement of knowledge and ideas and passing those along to the next generations.
Wallace: I chose KU because it was a pioneer in my field, and I hoped to be a part of it moving to leadership in that field. Also, because I found its administration to be down-to-earth and dedicated to goals that matched my own.
Wolf-Wendel: KU has been a great place to work. Despite the fact that I could make a higher salary if I worked elsewhere, I have found a strong sense of collegiality and community here. I have good students, good colleagues and the freedom to pursue research, teaching and service that is personally and professionally fulfilling. Lawrence is a great place to live and a wonderful place to raise a family and to work.
What is your biggest hope for KU?
chairwoman, KU Alumni Association Board of Directors and Wichita resident
My biggest hope is for KU to become one of the top 25 public universities in the country.
mayor, city of Lawrence
I know that KU will continue to grow and prosper as a thriving research institution. I am hopeful that with its cooperation we can assist through a number of initiatives in leveraging research into job opportunities for the community.
president, KU Endowment Association
The current planning for the launch of the university’s next comprehensive fundraising campaign will be key to advancing the university’s strategic goals for the future. In the life of any university, major fundraising campaigns are events which transform universities through the realization of new programs, buildings, scholarships for students and funds to bring outstanding faculty to the campus. The success of the next campaign can serve to advance the university to new heights.
Constance: As a KU graduate myself, I want KU to be the best academic community it can possibly be. I want it to embody respect for all people and ideas in everything it does. I want it to recognized and demonstrate that strength comes from diversity, and the ultimate diversity goes beyond race, gender and culture to the individual uniqueness of every human being.
Heilman: My biggest hope for KU is that we take the current budget crisis we are in and use it as an opportunity — an opportunity to implement cost-saving, sustainable practices throughout campus. It is easy to feel sorry for ourselves and say, “Why is this happening now? What can we do about it?,” but taking the opportunity to say, “You know, why do we print off all of those e-mails? Do we really need to plant full-grown tulips every year, or could we put in low-maintenance, native plants?” The answer is not always yes to some of these questions, but often it is and, given our budget reduction, this is the year to ask them.
What are the university’s biggest areas of needed improvement?
Shankel: For many years now, the proportion of KU’s budget funded directly by state government has been on the decline. As a result tuition levels have had to be dramatically increased. Reversing, or at least stopping, this trend is vital for KU’s future. Declining state support, while affecting all areas, has been particularly hard on infrastructure, resulting in a large increase in the backlog of needed repair and improvement projects. If students’ comments are taken into consideration, we probably still need further attention to the perennial problem of student advising. Many have suggested that the morale of faculty, staff and retirees may have declined in recent years.
Wallace: There needs to be a more systematic way for the university to better involve retired faculty and staff who would like to be involved, and to help them believe they are a valued resource to the university.
There also needs to be a better way to plan ahead to bridge the gaps in university income that occur when the Legislature drops the ball for whatever reason. The excellence of a university cannot be accomplished in fits and starts.
It would also be nice if nonrevenue sports were reasonably supported and successful.
Seuferling: For the entire university community to have a clear understanding of the strategic goals for the university so we can achieve a more coordinated and consistent message for our important external constituents — legislators, alumni, donors, business leaders and citizens of Kansas.
We all need to do a better job of conveying how important KU is to our state and region, and the critical role it can play as an economic engine. Our educators, researchers, health care providers and graduates impact the quality of life of millions of people. There is no better way to ensure the economic recovery of our region than investing in KU.
Watson: Vast improvement has already been made in the area of student recruitment, especially with the new Jayhawk Generations Scholarship, which offers partial tuition waivers to academically qualifying out-of-state students from KU families. But we must continue to improve our recruitment efforts to attract the best and brightest students to Kansas.
Wolf-Wendel: I think we need to work through the current budget woes without losing the core functions of the institution — generating research and providing quality education at the graduate and undergraduate levels.
We need to respond to requests for accountability but understand that we aren’t a business with a bottom line; we are an academic institution charged with adding to the knowledge base in our fields and providing a high-quality education for our students. As such, we need to be as concerned about institutional quality as we do efficiency. Declining state support is a continuous problem, and we will need to find a way to reverse the current trend or find alternative sources of revenue that doesn’t make higher education inaccessible to those with limited incomes. We need to hone our mission to be a flagship research university, recognizing that the faculty role is divided equally between research and teaching and also has an important service component. The specific issues that need to be dealt with in the future include potentially rethinking our admissions criteria to become more selective in the context of a state that is very populist in orientation; reining in the athletic department and its insatiable budget (this is a national problem, not just ours); and making sure that we recruit and retain the best faculty, staff and students that we can.
Constance: Some are obvious. Catching up on deferred maintenance, for example, and then keeping up. Part of that is managing growth so that when we build a new facility, we already know what it will take to operate it and keep it in good shape, and we commit those needed resources.
A couple of others are less obvious. As the world becomes more electronically networked and the university matches suit, all the staff needs to be plugged into that network with adequate and appropriate hardware, and policies that support such access as a basic condition of employment. The other thing that comes to mind is the need for conditions of employment to be uniform across the campuses. If you work at KU, whether it be for physics and astronomy or washing dishes at Mrs. E’s, the rights, privileges and responsibilities of being a KU employee should be the same.
What advice do you have for the new chancellor?
Chestnut: I welcome our new chancellor, and I am hopeful she will seek opportunities to reach out to the community. Lawrence is enhanced greatly when the university participates as part of the greater community.
Watson: My advice would be to “enjoy the journey” as she strives to accomplish so many agenda items such as hiring a new provost, preparing for a new capital campaign, meeting legislators and alumni.
Heilman: My biggest piece of advice for the new chancellor would be to get to know the students at the university. Often, the chancellor is seen as this unapproachable, almost celebrity-like person by students when they get to KU. Making sure that she gets to know students, visits some student groups, eats dinner on Massachusetts Street, takes the occasional evening stroll around campus — these are all crucial to developing the type of relationship with students that can help to make her time a chancellor an overwhelming success.
Wallace: The chancellor should develop a new revenue stream for crisis funding, whether by putting away for a rainy day or by planing a major alumni appeal to donate for operational supplements during recognized financial crises. KU needs to stop passing on costs to students and potential students.
Shankel: Every chancellor I have known from Franklin Murphy through Bob Hemenway has had a unique style and different strengths. Our new chancellor arrives with high praise from trusted colleagues at North Carolina for her collegial, thoughtful and inclusive leadership style. KU and UNC are similar universities, so I would only suggest that she continue with her natural leadership style and it will translate well to KU.
Wolf-Wendel: I think the new chancellor needs to be the voice and provide a vision for the institution to national, state and local constituents. She needs to communicate clear goals of where she wants the institution to go — while recognizing that we are somewhat of a decentralized, organized anarchy, which makes change slow to happen. She needs to know what is happening across the institution but not micromanage it. She needs to fill the top positions that are currently vacant (provost, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences) with strong individuals who have solid leadership skills and a commitment to the core functions of a research university. And she needs to be a strong advocate for the role of higher education in the state.
Constance: Be a synthesizer. Take in as much information from as wide a range of sources as possible, and then make a decision. More harm comes from knowing too little than from knowing too much. Build connections in a lot of areas and tap them regularly in the decision process. Be open to suggestion and transparent in motives and processes, so that people feel included and respected.
Seuferling: The university’s many external constituents rely upon the chancellor to articulate and advance the university’s goals, needs and aspirations. The chancellor is best positioned to represent the university in the Legislature, with citizens throughout the state and with donors. Consequently, it is important for the chancellor to have highly capable leadership on the campus to keep the university running smoothly.
What is the No. 1 thing the new chancellor should know about KU as she starts her job?
Heilman: The No. 1 thing I think the chancellor should know about KU is that it is a unique and wonderful place to be. She won’t find a more picturesque campus, welcoming city or motivated group of faculty and students. At KU, the student voice in our college careers can be immensely helpful in guiding her decision-making, so I would encourage her to take full advantage of that input throughout her tenure.
Seuferling: Bernadette Gray-Little will come to learn how deeply KU alumni, donors and friends care about their university. This can be of tremendous benefit to the chancellor as she articulates her vision and goals for KU’s future. As people learn about these goals and aspirations they can become powerful advocates and supporters in moving the forward. Everyone wants to rally around the leader who provides vision and goals that can lead to greater achievements. KU alumni and friends are anxious to follow her lead.
Constance: People will be eager for her to succeed, for that will mean success for the institution and all of us who are part of it. They will, however, be a bit wary. They will want very much to respect and trust our new chancellor, but that respect and trust will have to be earned. A good organization is built from the ground up, not the top down, and good leaders know that nurturing this idea is where success will be found.
Watson: In the difficult and competitive world of university politics, I think Dr. Gray-Little should know the amazing synergy that exists among key university stakeholders. The administration, faculty, the KU Alumni Association, the KU Endowment Association and the Athletics Department work together admirably for the greater good of the university.
Wolf-Wendel: The chancellor needs to know that basketball is important, but it is not the center of the institution — we are a strong research university and need to keep the focus on our mission.
Chestnut: I am sure that the new chancellor is already aware of the great tradition at KU. It has a large and loyal alumni that have a real bond with the university. I love meeting fellow alumni that return to Lawrence and talk about their memories of a great college experience.
Wallace: To know that she does not have to start from scratch, to accept the many strengths and to guide needed improvements in a sensitive manner that complements our current strengths, rather than replacing them.
Shankel: Our new chancellor should know that she arrives at KU with a great reservoir of goodwill and high hopes for her success. Each previous chancellor I have known has made some special contribution to the excellence (and/or survival) of KU as a very special place, and all of us here look forward to helping her achieve the goals she sets for KU, and the ways in which she will further strengthen and define this unique asset of the state.
How do you recommend KU’s new chancellor learn about the university?
Watson: The KU Alumni Association would be an excellent place to start because everything they do strengthens KU. The association is a vital worldwide network of Jayhawks who will introduce her to the alumni base, educate her about the university and the state of Kansas. They will support her as she executes her strategies.
Chestnut: Learn from the university community. My mother and father both worked to KU collectively for almost 50 years. The faculty and staff of the university is what makes it a great school. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience that will prove valuable to anyone coming into such a challenging position.
Wolf-Wendel: She needs to seek counsel from various constituencies about our current strengths and weaknesses and work to improve the former and minimize the latter. We have very loyal faculty, staff, students and alumni who love KU and want to make this place all it can be. The system of university governance (faculty, classified, unclassified and student governance) is here to help her and the larger institution achieve its goals.
Constance: Spend as much time as possible in the field, getting to know the people who make the university go. Observe, ask questions and listen to the answers. As a part of that, be sure to pay attention to what a friend of mine used to refer to as “the marginal people,” folks who may not fit under the fat part of the bell curve. If you wish to know the shape of the forest, the folks who dwell on its edges will be of great help to you. This may take some time. It will take at least a year to get a good feel for this place, but it will be time well-spent.
Wallace: She should listen to her faculty and other constituencies through regular gatherings and dialogues.
Shankel: My advice for learning about KU is to continue to follow the strategies she has obviously used so well at North Carolina. Take time to get acquainted with the views and sensitivities of all her major constituencies: faculty, staff, students, alumni, retirees and legislators. Then work with these groups to help her develop achievable goals for her time at KU.
Heilman: Take a walk. You learn more about KU from walking around campus at any given time of the day than reading memos or having meetings. When you walk around KU, you come to appreciate not only how great the campus is, but also what people are up to. Striking up a conversation with a student, professor, bus driver — you name it — is a phenomenal way to get to know KU. Seeing campus and its people at different times also gives you a great window into exactly how many people utilize and enjoy campus throughout the day.
Seuferling: She will begin her duties as chancellor at the same time as KU welcomes its new freshman class. So, not unlike our new freshmen, the chancellor will be treated to an early lesson on KU traditions at Traditions Night in Memorial Stadium just three days before the first day of classes. For the first time in 14 years, Traditions Night will not only be instructive for the new freshmen, it will also be so for the chancellor! My advice is to take some time to sit back, enjoy and take part in the traditions that make this place so special.
Why did you choose KU?
Heilman: I attend KU because it is a great place to be. I never applied anywhere else. Being from Lawrence, it is easy to fall into the trap of “I grew up here, so I have to leave.” To me, that is one of the biggest mistakes I could have made. You really can go away to college in the same town you grow up in. My mom, a local pharmacist, likes to tell people who ask if it’s nice to have her boys in town for college, that she enjoys seeing us every Sunday when we come home to do our laundry. Throughout my childhood, as I used campus as my own personal playground, I would imagine what buildings I would have classes in, where I would live, what it would be like. As I visited other universities on vacations or trips, I tried to picture myself crossing major intersections to get to class or going somewhere with fewer students than my graduating class and just couldn’t see it.
Coming to KU turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made in my life. It has top-notch academics, events, organizations and athletics. There is a place for everyone. Once becoming part of the Jayhawk Nation, doors fly open left and right and often leave me wondering how so many people could be connected to one place.