Pittsburg State University has a new president, Steven Scott; Kansas State University has a new president, Kirk Schulz; and Kansas University has a new chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little.
It’s likely Wichita State University and Fort Hays State University will be looking for new presidents within the next few years, and Emporia State University also will be looking for a new leader at some point.
The Pittsburg, Kansas State and KU changeovers took place within the past several months and provided a rare opportunity for the Kansas Board of Regents to take a serious look at possible changes in its employment and hiring policies that would benefit the regents universities, as well as the entire state.
When taking on a new position, about any new chancellor or president says something like, “I intend to remain in office and carry out my duties as long as I and the regents believe I am doing a good job.”
In a press conference after being named KU’s 17th chancellor, Gray-Little, who is 64 years old, said it would be unlikely for her to be chancellor for 20 years, but that she intended to be chancellor as long as “I and the regents think I am doing a good job.”
Chances are, almost every KU chancellor since World War II has shared the same thoughts, although with the caveat that he might leave sooner if a better, more rewarding job opened up or he found it impossible to work under current conditions.
How often in recent Kansas history have chancellors or presidents announced they did not think they were carrying out their responsibilities as well as they should? How often have regents said Chancellor X or President Y is not measuring up and needs to be replaced?
How many chancellors and presidents have stayed in their offices too long, to the detriment of the university, the state and themselves?
Regents should consider establishing a template, a time frame when hiring a chancellor or president. There is no magical, perfect number of years, but in today’s higher education climate, the average tenure for a university chancellor or president at a major university is somewhere around five or six years. Chancellor Robert Hemenway served for 14 years, and Jon Wefald was president of KSU for 22 years.
Why not have a policy that would give all future hires an initial five-year employment contract with a five-year renewal option, 10 years maximum.
During the first five years, the chancellor or president would have annual performance reviews, not the current softball reviews, during which the regents ask: “How do you think things are going on your campus? Are there any serious problems? How do you get along with the faculty? Any serious student problems? What are your relations with state legislators? What are your plans for increasing private fiscal support for your school? What about the drinking situation on your campus?”
The review process should be much tougher and far-reaching, similar to what deans of the various schools at KU go through every five years. At these reviews, faculty, alumni, students and others interested in the welfare and excellence of a particular school or department are asked serious questions about the dean or chair, questions like: “Are they measuring up?” and “What do their own faculty members think of them?”
The results of these reviews and questions make it fairly clear the level of respect the dean or chair enjoys from his or her faculty, alumni, students, etc., and whether there is severe dissatisfaction.
The effectiveness of this review process can be seen by the number of deans and chairs who announce soon before their reviews that they have decided to step down from their leadership roles because they “want to return to the classroom as a teacher.” In some cases, this may be true, but in other cases, it is the knowledge he or she is not likely to get a good review that prompts the decision to return to the classroom rather than being dismissed.
A specific employment period would be good for the university, students, faculty and the state, as well as for the chancellors and presidents themselves. It would create a process, known by anyone seeking the top job at any state university, and it would give the regents a tool and justification to dig into the performance of a university leader.
It is understood that, some years ago, there was a serious discussion by the Board of Regents about whether one of the leaders of a state university should be retained in his job. The vote was 5-4 to keep him, but this was only after one regent changed his vote at the last minute in the incumbent’s favor.
Another matter regents should consider is whether some kind of a financial package could be provided to a chancellor/president at retirement to indicate appreciation for his or her service. Sometimes, the lack of a nest egg, major assets or an attractive new job offer at the time a chancellor or president might like to call it a day keeps that individual in office because he or she needs the money and perks the job provides.
Perhaps some program jointly funded by the school, its endowment association and the state, perhaps a matching program, could be created to provide funds to a retiring executive — nothing like the obscene bonuses KU athletic officials have been handing out, but something that would mean a great deal to a retiring chancellor or president, something like a fiscal safety net.
Past KU chancellors, such as Deane Malott, Franklin Murphy, Clarke Wescoe, Archie Dykes and Gene Budig, all left KU for attractive, well-paying jobs, but this isn’t guaranteed for all future chancellors. These chancellors left KU at an age when other attractive job opportunities were available. What is the situation for leaders at KU, KSU, Pittsburg or other state universities who are retiring at an older age with no nice-paying job in the offing?
The regents make open-ended arrangements with new chancellors and presidents with no tough, meaningful review process in place.
This is unfair to all parties — the universities, the faculty and students, the state and to the chancellors and presidents themselves.
Now is a good time for the regents to consider some serious, meaningful changes in the hiring procedures IF they are intent on doing what they can to provide the best education opportunities for the young men and women of Kansas and IF they want to stimulate and enthuse faculty members at the state’s universities.
Another thing they could do is to have a far better understanding and knowledge of what actually is going on at the various campuses, rather than relying on highly favorable reports from the friends of the chancellor and presidents. They need to have much deeper knowledge and also have the backbone, courage and toughness to make difficult decisions.
The governor needs to give far more attention to appointing individuals to the Board of Regents who merit the respect of the public, legislators and those in higher education, not just to paying off political IOUs.
Maybe Gov. Mark Parkinson can set a new, higher standard for those he selects for the tremendously important Board of Regents.