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.