Archive for Saturday, April 3, 2010

KU’s loss of momentum spurs concerns for the future

April 3, 2010


For the past three or four years, this writer has expressed his concerns about Kansas University’s state of health. KU enjoys a proud history and, in its glory years, was looked upon as one of the nation’s outstanding state-aided universities.

KU clearly was the flagship of the old Big Eight conference, but it has slipped both regionally and nationally. It’s unclear whether that’s a case of the university not maintaining its relative position among other regional schools or of other schools getting better at KU’s expense. Maybe KU just isn’t as good a school as it used to be.

At the same time, there are academic/research areas at the university that are world-class in every respect and many, many exceptional, superior faculty members who would be an asset on any major university campus.

Nevertheless, just as there was something missing within the KU basketball team this season that kept the highly talented team from truly “clicking” and taking advantage of its talent to win the national title, something also has been missing for the past five or 10 years that keeps the university from “clicking” and taking advantage of its many assets.

This writer has said in the past, and continues to believe, that this is a very critical time for the school.

Is there the vision, leadership and initiative, by all those interested in the welfare of the university, to coordinate their efforts to elevate KU to higher standards of excellence and national recognition?

Look at what has happened at KU Hospital in Wyandotte County. Only a few years ago, the hospital was ranked near the bottom of the nation’s 100 or so teaching hospitals. However, with strong, visionary and tough leadership — starting with former KU Hospital President Irene Cumming and now by Bob Page — the hospital ranks among the nation’s top five and clearly is Kansas City’s leading hospital.

Leadership does make a difference! While some were trying to weaken the hospital, Cumming and her staff refused to knuckle under, and, today, the hospital is recognized for many areas of excellence.

Currently, there are many situations at the university that severely weaken or handicap efforts to develop a united enthusiastic effort to build the school into an exciting, stimulating center of excellence.

Obviously, there must be strong, effective, passionate leadership that infects the overall Lawrence and university environment, as well as alumni and friends. Unfortunately, this was lacking in the later years of the previous chancellor’s tenure, and it is too early to know whether the school now has this critical element.

It is known a sufficient number of highly respected faculty are concerned about the future direction of the school. They want to know the priorities of the university and how administrators hope to achieve these goals. So far, they think they are in the dark about what to expect from Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

The recent disclosure that KU Athletic Director Lew Perkins earned $4.4 million in 2009 has caused tremendous discussion, concern and disgust among faculty, alumni and friends. Many believe athletics at KU are an example of the tail wagging the dog.

In the past few days, many generous alumni have told this reporter they are mad. They think they have been played as “suckers” and do not intend to give any more money to the school as long as salaries and values are so far out of line.

They think Perkins is the most powerful man on the KU campus and that this came about because of the lack of leadership or control by former Chancellor Robert Hemenway. They don’t like it and they think this hurts the entire university, not just the athletic department.

This feeling toward the athletic department is not new. It has existed for some time.

One prominent faculty member noted the newly appointed KU provost will earn $350,000 a year and receive use of a car for business purposes. Two new KU assistant football coaches also will each make $350,000 a year and get new cars. “What does this say,” the faculty member asked, “about the priorities of KU, which is supposed to be an academic institution?”

A successful, challenging KU capital campaign is long overdue, but it remains stalled on a sidetrack. Nothing was done in the last years of the Hemenway chancellorship and nothing is being done at this time with untested Gray-Little, a newcomer to Kansas.

The economy is in the doldrums; the KU ticket mess, along with Perkins’ salary, is a downer; there is questionable faculty morale and many questions about the chancellor. All combine to dull enthusiasm and expectations for a successful $1 billion-plus capital campaign.

Also, there are questions about the manner in which important vacancies have been filled at KU. Several months ago, university search committees were looking for a new provost and deans for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Law and School of Music.

Three of the four positions have been filled, and obviously, at this time, the jury is out on the excellence of those selections. The new provost, however, brings the academic background, talent, experience and vision essential if the university’s overall academic operation is to receive a strong effective injection of performance and excellence. Also, he may be able to get alumni and friends excited about the school.

KU has potential. KU alumni will do most anything to help the school. KU graduates and friends have been, and will continue to be, very generous in their fiscal support if they have confidence in the school and its leadership. KU alumni and friends want a successful athletic program, but they do not want excessive expenditures. They want the athletic department to operate under the university umbrella rather than as an independent fiefdom with uncontrolled spending and big egos.

The public jury, or jury of KU supporters, is waiting for evidence the school can shift into a higher gear in its drive for excellence. They do not want the school falling behind. In the eyes of many, it has been coasting or merely floating with the tide. They want something better.

Hopefully, Chancellor Gray-Little will provide some answers and evidence of such a commitment at her inauguration next Sunday.


Phillbert 7 years, 8 months ago

Ah, good ol' Irene Cummings, who was paid $1.8 million to leave KU Hospital. Something "this writer" never seems to mention.

frazzled 7 years, 8 months ago

Typical Saturday LJW editorial, filled with unverifiable quotes from unnamed sources and presentation of opinion as fact.

John Kyle 7 years, 8 months ago

frazzled: It's in the opinion section of the paper.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 8 months ago

Mr. Simons is largely correct.

KU suffers from an entrenched faculty culture of low expectations and performance. Worse, KU labors beneath a bloated and ineffective adminstrator class whose main objective is to keep their own jobs and gross salaries.

Strong leadership is needed. Every single faculty member and administrator should be required to justify their contributions to the university in terms of teaching, research, and initiatives to improve the university. Those found wanting should be fired.

This is the only way KU will lift itself out of mediocrity.

sciencegeek 7 years, 8 months ago

Now wait a second--what mediocrity are we talking about here? KU has one of the highest- paid ADs in the country. The locker room of the men's basketball team just had renovations that many professional teams would envy, at a bargain price of $25 million. And, most important, enough lawyers to not only control their trademark and anything remotely associated with it (like the colors red and blue and the word "Kansas"), but grind a dangerous company like Joe College into the ground. Nope, mediocrity just doesn't describe it.

nobody1793 7 years, 8 months ago

Hold on.

Too much emphasis on athletics. Outspoken alumni. Faculty butting heads with administration. Budget cuts by state legislatures.

Name one public university in any major conference that doesn't have the same issues going on. Michigan? Berkeley? Florida? These are systemic problems.

took_the_money_and_ran 7 years, 8 months ago

In my experience, KU's "bloated and ineffective" administrator class does more or less the best they can, considering they don't have that many high cards to play. It could be a more enjoyable place to be, though, if a few chronic malcontents were to leave.

sad_lawrencian 7 years, 8 months ago

Is this article about the decline of KU as a university or is it about how much power Lew Perkins wields? As a relatively new Lawrence resident, I am still amazed by the amount of power and influence Lew Perkins has in this town and probably the state. Funny thing is, he came to KU from my home state of Connecticut, and I do not remember even hearing about him before I moved to Kansas.

Not to knock the current KU leadership, but I was surprised when KU announced they were replacing Hemenway with a 65-year-old. I would have thought a younger, more energetic person would be best equipped to deal with the issues mentioned in this article.

One overriding issue is that Kansas colleges and universities are, in general, significantly behind the times. Research, funding, development. Example: the "deferred maintenance" program at the six state universities. Someone please find me a top-100 US News & World Report liberal-arts college somewhere in this state? Or a school in the top 50 of national doctoral universities?

My children will be going to college out-of-state. Planning to send them to schools in Minnesota or possibly back east (I went to UConn so there is a connection).

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 8 months ago

"It could be a more enjoyable place to be, though, if a few chronic malcontents were to leave."

This is just what the entrenched mediocities at KU want. "Chronic malcontents" are generally those who try to make KU a better university by speaking out and saying what needs to be done.

Those who want the university to be a "more enjoyable place" would love nothing more if those with high standards were to leave. It allows them to be mediocre and happy in their little bubble of a university called KU.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 8 months ago

KUAC is indeed the exception to KU mediocrity. They do and are allowed to do what is necessary to be in the top echelon of athletic programs in the country.

DB Ashton 7 years, 8 months ago

Mr Simons is sincere, authoritative, vastly experienced and with access that is as broad as it is deep. He is a person of some considerable substance and is worthy of the most considered attention. If he’s flying the flag, as he clearly is here, we would all do well to pay respectful attention.

That’s not to say I agree with him. My view is that the history and tradition of the University of Kansas is a proud one, but hardly glorious and always far less than we proclaimed. No matter; for a modest, under populated, agricultural Plains state, it has been extraordinary KU, in reality, has been as good a publicly funded liberal arts institution as it is.
There’s no reason for it to be. Financial resources have always limited, and what is available is supplied grudgingly – predominantly rural Kansans have never been at ease with Snob Hill, nor is the more current, sullen and self-assured mob of conservative evangelicals that is desperate to drive the bus.

As for the athletic department, it’s a vulgarity of choice. Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that the path to greater respectability was best paved on the backs of muscular young mercenaries. That’s not a totally unreasonable modern marketing plan. Others argue that sporting excellence motivates a more universal spirit of generosity. That’s arguable. In any case, Mr Perkins is not the problem. Someone got what they paid for; he was the solution. Can’t say he didn’t deliver, as embarrassing and boorish as it’s been.

I believe that Mr Simons is absolutely correct that the university will limp along until a leader emerges with an appropriate, communicable vision that a diverse constituency of Kansans and Hilltoppers can rally behind. I’d begin with a more candid reassessment of what KU is and a dialogue on what it can and should be.

My vote has always been on actual teaching and undergraduate education, with emphasis on disciplines that are most likely to serve Kansas as a whole and don’t duplicate resources available nearby. But that approach does not satisfy those who prefer to be entertained at the highest level of excellence in Allen Field House, or attract research dollars, or charm academic celebrities, or even produce an immediately measurable return in services to the state.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 8 months ago

I agree that KU must decide what it is. As it is now, it is not a liberal arts college. It is a research university. Its faculty are expected to spend 40% of their time doing research (the other 40% teaching, 20% service). KU is designated as a Carnegie Research I institution (as opposed to K State, which is not). KU also has a full slate of doctoral programs, something not found at liberal arts colleges. KU has had this profile of a research university for a very long time.

Trouble is, many don't see it that way, including sandycove. Many want KU to simply be a liberal arts college akin to Baker or Washburn or Fort Hays or Pitt state or Emporia State. Kansas has plenty of liberal arts colleges.

Many KU administrators also want KU to be a liberal arts college. This has contributed to the poor development of KU as a research university.

So, KU is most definitely a research university but it is at times run like a liberal arts college. It is time for KU to make up its mind.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 8 months ago

"...with emphasis on disciplines that are most likely to serve Kansas as a whole and don’t duplicate resources available nearby."

Agreed. Kansas has at least five liberal arts colleges. What it needs is a top-flight research university.

swmrsue 7 years, 8 months ago

"Many believe athletics at KU are an example of the tail wagging the dog". Well said! It is time for effective leadership at the top.

Phillbert 7 years, 8 months ago

"Mr Simons is sincere, authoritative, vastly experienced and with access that is as broad as it is deep. He is a person of some considerable substance and is worthy of the most considered attention. If he’s flying the flag, as he clearly is here, we would all do well to pay respectful attention."

It's a little late for an April Fool's Joke, but this paragraph is the funniest I've read in a long time.

"This writer" is wholly insincere, lacks any semblance of authority, has no experience beyond running a once proud newspaper into the ground, and relies on nothing but the anonymous whisperings of a handful of disgruntled has-beens, also-rans and outright crooks for his "reporting."

He has no substance - see his many columns that say nothing beyond that KU should "hire good people" or his dozens of ill-informed ramblings about the hospital - and he rarely, if ever offers any real solutions, only repeated criticisms. He is barely worthy of passing mockery, let alone our "respectful attention."

LogicMan 7 years, 8 months ago

"A successful, challenging KU capital campaign is long overdue, but it remains stalled on a sidetrack."

"My vote has always been on actual teaching and undergraduate education"

Do a well-done, short campaign specifically for buildings, grounds, and undergraduate degree programs, and specifically NOT for ANY research, graduate programs, sports, or administration, and I suspect the results might be surprising.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 8 months ago

Logicman. Get your facts straight. Research is rarely the recipient of any fundraising at ku. Kuac yes, but research no. It should be, but has not been in the past.

You obviously do not know what you are talking about.

David Klamet 7 years, 8 months ago

I wish there were a way to vote on those comment threads that contain more courtesy and reason than most. I would vote for this one.

took_the_money_and_ran 7 years, 8 months ago

I look at KU from the perspective of someone who was there for some time, then left for a better university.

On my first day there, a then-administrator told me that KU was a second-rate research university with pockets of strength in certain programs. Without speculating about why this person chose to be so frank, I would say that was correct then, and is correct now. In the most recent National Science Foundation rankings of research expenditures, KU is 84th nationally. KU's relative ranking may have been better 50 years ago, but the pace of change in science has increased everywhere, and it has increased faster at the best places. The gap between the top tier of research universities and KU is wide and gets wider every year, not because KU is regressing, but other institions progress faster. It's partly about money, and it's partly not. KU has gotten a fair number of very large grant awards in recent years; some of those research programs have turned out well, some of the money went to people who, as it turned out, were in over their heads.

I think KU's administrators have done reasonably well in recent years. They have a finite amount of resources to invest. It's as unrealistic to expect every investment they make to be optimal as it is for a mutual fund manager to beat the market all the time. I think it is realistic for KU to be good at a number of things and get incrementally better at a few things. They have some talented people on the faculty. The correlation between how good they are and how much they bitch, however, is weak. Top to bottom shakeups and mass firings of administrators? If the goal is to move from #84 to, say, #125 in a short period of time, this could work well.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.