New chancellor could mark start of resurgence for KU

Hopefully, Friday’s announcement by the Kansas Board of Regents that Bernadette Gray-Little, provost at the University of North Carolina, will become Kansas University’s 17th chancellor could mark a resurgence of the school’s goal of becoming one of the nation’s truly outstanding state-aided universities.

It’s going to take time, but with vision, drive, enthusiasm, good communication, the support and respect of faculty, and renewed endorsement by university alumni and friends, the new chancellor has the opportunity to ignite a dormant, pent-up desire for KU to live up to its potential.

The arrival of a new chancellor is similar to a new football or basketball coach taking over a team and requiring every player on the squad to justify his position as a starter. No player, aside from a true all-star, is guaranteed a starting spot. Even with tenure, it’s likely the chancellor will do a great deal of evaluation once she assumes her office.

Not only will KU have a new leader, but the chancellor will have the opportunity to select a new provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the most powerful positions on the campus.

By all measurements, KU is a good — substantially better than average — state-aided university. However, it is not a great institution, and this is the dream and desire of all those associated with the school. The potential is there, but for one reason or another, this excellence has not blossomed as it should.

The late Dr. Charles Kimball, leader of Kansas City’s Midwest Research Institute, and late Franklin Murphy, who served as KU chancellor, used to talk about the role of KU as a giant lighthouse of excellence for the vast prairie states.

Murphy, one of the nation’s most respected university chancellors, often said, “In the coming years, there will be a giant forest of universities in the Trans-Mississippi West, but among this forest will be a few giant redwoods. KU can be one of those redwoods.”

Before affiliating with the Big 12 Conference, KU was recognized as a flagship institution in the Big Eight Conference and the dominant flagship in Kansas. Although other schools might have select areas of excellence, KU clearly was the flagship institution. Some are sure to argue, but this was the case.

Since those years, however, KU has remained fairly static or other schools have gotten much better. KU is no longer the clear leader among the former Big Eight Schools: Colorado, Iowa State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. It has been passed by several schools.

During the Big Eight years, the KU Endowment Association was the leader in fundraising and assets. But here, again, KUEA has been passed by one or more schools.

KU was one of the first, if not the first school in the former Big Eight or Big Seven to be invited to be a member of the prominent American Association of Universities. Now, there are other former Big Eight schools in the AAU.

The point — or question — is: Why hasn’t KU maintained its position of leadership among the former Big Eight Conference schools? The current Big 12 Conference has Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor, and several of those institutions are ahead of KU in numerous areas.

Unfortunately, KU does not have the leadership position it used to enjoy! It has slipped in recent years.

Chancellor Gray-Little will face many challenges, but one of the most pressing will be to regain the respect of the KU faculty. Faculty members currently understand and appreciate the state’s tight budget situation and they want to cooperate in these difficult times.

However, it is hard for them to absorb cuts in their budgets and, at the same time, see millions of dollars being spent by the KU athletics department on fancy buildings, weight machines, trees to shield a practice field and many other questionable needs.

In their eyes, and the eyes of state legislators, parents of students, taxpayers and friends of the university, the spending by athletics department officials, particularly in these times, is obscene. How Gray-Little deals with this situation will serve as a measuring stick for many interested in the overall excellence of the school.

Hopefully, Friday will mark the beginning of a new era at KU, a period when the university will reach new heights of excellence and leadership and one that will pay dividends for students, faculty and the entire state for years to come.

Best wishes to Chancellor Gray-Little.