Incoming Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little is a newcomer to Kansas. As such, she is sure to be using every means to learn as much as she can about Lawrence and the state and the university’s relationship and history with the other Kansas Board of Regents institutions, alumni and friends, political bodies, the Lawrence community and the many other groups and individuals who have deep interests or involvement in KU.
As Professor Harold Hill noted in the musical “The Music Man,” “you gotta know the territory” if you hope to be a successful salesman.
Without any question, Gray-Little hopes to be a successful saleswoman for the university and for higher education.
This being the case, she wants to avoid getting blindsided or unnecessarily stubbing her toe.
There are many opportunities, as well as issues, facing Gray-Little when she moves into her Strong Hall office. In no particular order of importance: selecting a provost and a dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, dealing with the budget situation, getting to know her faculty, learning the major and current challenges facing the school, meeting and gaining the respect of state legislators and gaining the respect and enthusiasm of alumni and friends.
One of the issues that touches both faculty and alumni is the question of the proper balance, role, relative importance and funding for the academic side of the university compared with the intercollegiate athletics side.
Frankly, this issue has caused considerable unhappiness, frustration and disappointment among individuals on and off the campus. It is an issue that bothers many who are genuinely interested in the welfare and excellence of the university.
Unfortunately, this is a situation facing many chancellors across the country. Budgets are tight, and state legislatures are being forced to make significant cuts in funding for state-aided schools. Donors with fewer discretionary dollars to spend have to decide whether to support academic requests or fund athletic requests in order to gain sufficient “points” to be eligible for better seats at athletic events.
Most reasonable observers agree the “arms race” among university athletic powers and conference foes has gotten out of hand. Some say the “athletic animal” is already out of the barn and cannot be lassoed.
Winning is what is important, and it takes money to win, money to build and maintain impressive facilities to impress 17- and 18-year-old high school prospects and even younger potential all-stars, money to attract and hold good coaches, money for marketing and money for first-class travel and housing for athletes and coaches. Money, money, money.
And in most cases, the massive spending at each school could not have been carried out without the approval of the school’s chancellor or president.
College presidents claim to be concerned and talk about the need to get a handle on spending, but the evidence is clear that this is hollow talk. Early in his years at KU, Chancellor Robert Hemenway used to talk about controlling the spending, but look what has happened.
Time and time again, various groups of college leaders talk about the need to control costs, but nothing is done. The spending goes on and on.
This is one of the reasons there is such frustration and disappointment among many KU faculty members. They see their funds being cut, even small perks for theater and athletic events, and, at the same time, read about millions being spent to build new, fancy athletic buildings and new weight rooms, to plant trees, etc., while they are forced to pinch pennies.
They ask, “Just what are the priorities at KU?”
Lew Perkins was hired as KU athletics director to give KU winning, championship-caliber teams. At that time, the focus was on football because KU historically was a conference and national winner in basketball. He knew money was the key to getting the job done, and Hemenway gave him the green light.
Perkins wanted to build a sports program that would consistently place the Jayhawks among the top 25 in the national collegiate sports picture. KU basketball certainly ranks near or at the top, and now, football is climbing into the higher rankings. It’s likely other KU sports will improve, along with their facilities. Otherwise the coaches will be replaced. Perkins is all business, and he has raised millions of dollars, although his techniques and manner have angered many.
Early in his tenure at KU, Hemenway talked about getting KU ranked academically in the top 25 among all state-aided universities. Then the goal would be to get in the top 25 of all universities. Sadly, KU has fallen, not ascended, in various academic rankings since that time.
KU has its share of academic and research superstars, but even wonderful flower bulbs planted in a fertile piece of soil will not grow and display their brilliance without proper watering, fertilizer and sunshine. There hasn’t been the proper “watering, fertilizer and sunshine” at KU. There hasn’t been the support, leadership, priority, inspiration and enthusiasm necessary for Kansans and the nation to understand and recognize the excellence of the university.
Gray-Little will be starting a new era at KU. The opportunities are tremendous. The faculty is hungry for leadership and so eager to welcome a chancellor who will stress academic excellence. She couldn’t be coming at a more favorable time.
Although there will be tremendous demands for her time and attention, it is hoped she will find time on her schedule soon for a meeting with Perkins to discuss her goals and priorities for the university, a goal for excellence and national leadership in academics, as well as athletics.
If she had been at last Wednesday’s memorial service for former KU Athletics Director Bob Frederick, she would have seen and sensed the tremendous loyalty and support there is among alumni and friends for KU to excel in both academics and athletics, but to achieve this mark of excellence in a manner that reflects credit on all facets of the institution. It should be done with class, integrity and honesty that will instill pride and loyalty among faculty, students, alumni and friends.
Have the Gray-Little era at KU mark the beginning of sanity and reason on how to achieve excellence and balance in both academics and athletics — a model for the entire country and all universities to follow.