It’s likely most every major college and university president or chancellor has his or her own way of overseeing and directing their institution. Likewise, most every university has its uniqueness; no two are exactly alike.
Kansas University’s new chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little, has been on the campus for about 100 days. She is facing a tough challenge at a challenging time.
She moved into the chancellor’s office as a relative unknown, saddled with the task of reigniting interest, enthusiasm, excitement and vision among faculty, students, alumni and friends of the school. She has no Kansas ties, she is the first female and first African-American to serve as chancellor; she needs to meet people and tell the university’s story as well as her own story as quickly and effectively as possible; she needs to fill a number of important positions within the university; and, she must get ready to assume a highly visible and key role when the Kansas University Endowment Association embarks on a capital campaign with a goal of raising close to $1 billion.
She also needs to figure out a way to generate better relations, mutual understanding and respect between herself and those in the Kansas Legislature.
Added to this is the fact she inherited the same bureaucracy which has been on the campus for the past several years. Now, with a new chancellor, a new boss, it stands to reason a good share of these major players on the campus are doing anything and everything they can to sell themselves, their importance and expertise in order to retain their jobs.
These people are not enthusiastic about change or new ideas or new ways to do things. They are comfortable and like their positions of power. They may talk a good game, but privately they are more concerned about their own welfare.
It would be difficult to suggest how much time it takes for a new chancellor to get an accurate handle on his or her campus, assess the capabilities of the institution they have inherited and to make the changes they think necessary if the university is to move in the direction desired by the new chancellor.
This week, Time magazine carries a feature on E. Gordon Gee, president of the Ohio State University. Gee has served as president of Ohio State twice, as well as president/chancellor of West Virginia University, Colorado, Brown and Vanderbilt.
Time writer David Von Drehle states, “As president of the Ohio State University and one of the most experienced university executives in the U.S., he is campaigning for a revolution in higher education at a time when the field is more important, and perhaps more troubled, than ever.
“In a world where brain power outstrips muscle power, where innovation trumps conformity, where the nimble and creative stand to inherit the earth, higher education is the key to the next American century. Forget the ivory tower: colleges and universities are catalysts of economic development, stewards of public health, incubators of social policy and laboratories of discovery.”
This being the case, does Chancellor Gray-Little intend to build KU into a leading national research university and, if so, how will she go about it?
Von Drehle says that as a result of the many challenges and opportunities facing this country, “college presidents are on the line as never before and must be accessible and accountable to the public in a way that rivals or even surpasses what is required of public officials.”
If this is true, and if Gordon Gee is offered as an example of what makes a visionary, politically smart and successful leader, and if Chancellor Gray-Little is to have a chance of accomplishing what she dreams of at KU, major changes will have to be made.
The university must enter a new chapter of operation, shed the lethargy of recent years, and the chancellor has to be a strong, tireless, effective, visionary and respected leader. She will need to sell herself to the public, earn the respect of state lawmakers, some way or another have the governor appoint strong, able and highly respected individuals to the Board of Regents. and the governor must buy into the importance of major support of higher education.
Gee has done all of this, even more. He is sure to have made mistakes along the way but as Time points out, he has been a success. He is quoted as saying, “There should be no wasted moment.” He travels constantly calling on influential alumni and wealthy individuals interested in the welfare of the school; he is described as an exceptional leader and individual with great ambition. He is a highly successful fundraiser.
Gee says higher education has become too expensive because institutions are frozen in the inefficient past. Departments fail to collaborate. Curriculums have become outdated. The tenure system too often rewards useless publications over real-world impact. He said, “We crush the enthusiasm out of our young faculty.”
Gee added, the greatest partnership at Ohio State should be with the community colleges. “We’re all part of the same mission, which is education from pre-K through life.”
In his latest stint as president of Ohio State he has cut costs, streamlined the liberal arts colleges and broken down old walls that divided traditional disciplines.
Gee has called for many changes at Ohio State, saying change forces faculty to rethink and redesign all their courses. Time quotes Gee as saying, “Yes, I am calling for intentional upheaval, a stripping of bureaucracies and boundaries at some of the world’s most bureaucratic and hidebound institutions. The U.S. needs to step up its game, become more creative, more flexible, more innovative in more ways. Who can take us there if not our educators?”
How will KU be judged 10 or 20 years from now? How will Chancellor Gray-Little be judged? Does she have vision and will she demand excellence? Will she be able to get rid of stunting or paralyzing bureaucracy at KU? Will she inspire and enthuse students, faculty and alumni?
The Gordon Gee success story might offer some guidelines or suggestions.