Archive for Saturday, December 4, 2010

Added oversight might benefit universities

December 4, 2010


Kansas Gov.-elect Sam Brownback and members of his transition team are dealing with thousands of details and demands to prepare the state’s new leadership team to get off to a good start in early January.

The challenges are immense, and the opportunities are great. How the governor kicks off his four-year term, how Kansans view his priorities and how he intends to tackle many of the state’s problems will go a long way in setting the tone and the level of enthusiasm or support the governor will generate for his time in office.

Will he be viewed as a strong, visionary leader, a person who can help guide Kansas and its citizens to a better future? Or will he be seen as a run-of-the-mill politician with a lot of promises and pledges but little chance of bringing these grand-sounding ideas to reality?

Those on his transition team have the responsibility of filling many important positions, putting together a state budget proposal to outline how they intend to grow the state’s economy and drafting the governor’s State of the State address.

The majority of Kansans were pleased with the manner in which retiring Gov. Mark Parkinson stepped into the governor’s office and the leadership he displayed.

However, that was for less than two years. Now, they want Brownback to lead the state in a fiscally sound manner. They want leadership and vision from the governor and they want to feel optimistic about the future. They want a minimum of political partisanship, and they would like to have the state of Kansas looked upon as innovative, visionary and courageous in dealing with a wide assortment of challenges.

One of the most pressing challenges, as well as opportunities, is how to deal with the massive problems associated with higher education: how to meet the rising costs and how to make sure Kansas universities are being run as efficiently as possible; how to attract and hold talented faculty members; how to avoid pricing students out of a chance to attend a superior academic institution; how to increase state fiscal support; and many other related matters.

Times change, and what once was accepted as the best way to oversee and manage universities also has changed, or at least should be changed to meet current and future needs.

Brownback and his advisers could consider whether the manner in which Kansas universities are operated and managed is effective and productive and provides enough accountability in today’s climate.

A university today is big business, a huge business. Would a successful business, in a highly competitive environment, operate as loosely as our state’s universities are operating? Budgets are in the many millions of dollars. They have thousands of employees, a large physical plant, tens of thousands of students and a major responsibility to those who are paying the bills: taxpayers, parents and students.

What accountability is there that the schools are measuring up?

Is it reasonable to think a chancellor can be on top of all these situations or that members of the Kansas Board of Regents know the seriousness of the challenges and how to address these problems or opportunities? The Kansas regents are part-time, not full-time, gatekeepers.

In past years, with fewer students, fewer academic programs, smaller budgets, less competition and far less emphasis on the “world” or international scene, it might have been easier for a chancellor or those serving as regents to think they had the ability and knowledge to take care of everything happening on their campuses.

Whether this rationale was justified 25 or 50 years ago is questionable, but it certainly isn’t the case today.

Hopefully, Brownback and his close advisers such as his incoming chief of staff David Kensinger and former state legislators Kenny Wilk will give serious thought to how to make the state’s higher education system more accountable.

Might they consider a university such as KU having a board of overseers, a small group of highly skilled, knowledgeable individuals who could help guide the university? This group could be composed of vigilant, supportive, successful people who understand challenges and could provide the regents an acute, accurate, unbiased assessment of the university’s needs and how it and its administrators are functioning. Is the chancellor effective in communicating the school’s needs, and is he or she imaginative and innovative in addressing opportunities? Does the state have strong leaders in administrative positions?

Some knowledgeable observers suggest the current regents system is obsolete, a figurehead operation, and that regents do not have the time to properly carry out their responsibilities and no longer enjoy the respect of state legislators and taxpayers.

Recent events on Mount Oread offer ample proof that it is difficult for regents to know as much as they should about what is going on at the campus. They have relied too heavily on the self-serving analyses of chancellors and provosts.

A group of overseers — or whatever such a group might be called — would give regents and state legislators the assurance that someone on the ground is providing sound, timely, accountable information.

It would be good for the state, taxpayers, students, the faculty and even chancellors and presidents if Brownback and his associates would give serious consideration to major changes in higher education oversight.

Why not be a leader, with other states and governors looking to Kansas as an example of how a state can successfully address the terrific challenges facing higher education?


LogicMan 7 years, 4 months ago

Isn't the Board of Regents supposed to do this?

Maybe they just need a kick in the pants.

Stephen Roberts 7 years, 4 months ago

Dolph ar eyou kidding???? Why additional oversight might actually help the universities but none of the leaders of the universities want it. Do you want to know why??? becuaes they want to spend the money the way they desire.

akuna 7 years, 4 months ago

What? Commuter are you kidding??? University budgets are pretty strictly controlled. A Department Chair can't just go out a buy a new car because s/he wants to. All of the state and federal monies has to be spent in a certain way. Private donations can be allocated to be freely spent, but rarely is.

Phillbert 7 years, 4 months ago

"Might they consider a university such as KU having a board of overseers, a small group of highly skilled, knowledgeable individuals who could help guide the university?"

Let me guess. You're volunteering for this "board of overseers", Dolph? If only you met the requirements you set out, such as being "supportive" and "unbiased"...

Kendall Simmons 7 years, 4 months ago

When Dolph writes "Is it reasonable to think a Chancellor can be on top of all these situations" or "the regents do not have the time to properly carry out their responsibilities", then it's really hard to turn right around and argue effectively that a "board of overseers composed of vigilant, supportive, successful people who understand challenges" could do a better job.

It ought to be obvious that, if it's unreasonable to think that any Chancellor who gets paid to do so...and already has "highly skilled, knowledgable individuals [to] help guide the university"...can't stay on top of things, a part time board of people with other professional responsibilities in their lives doesn't stand a chance.

And I assume part time because full time would eliminate most "vigilant, supportive, successful people"...and would also create its own self-serving environment.

Speaking of which, Dolph complains that the Regents "have relied too heavily on the self-serving analyses of chancellors and provosts". Well...what on earth does he think a "board of overseers" is going to rely on? I would hope not the same kind of self-serving complaining that Dolph himself relies on.

He also claims that this board will be able to provide "sound, timely, accountable information" to the state legislature. But just where does he think all this information will come from?

Yes, based on his claims for the role of this board, I'm assuming the board will have full time staff...but does anyone really think they won't be dependent on University-gathered data? (Or that they will become...cue dramatic investigative force for good vs. evil?)

Dolph may talk about how this group will provide "the regents an acute, accurate, unbiased assessment of the university's needs and how it and its administrators are functioning"...but the rest of us should realize that's just pie-in-the-sky posturing. After all, laying on another level of bureacracy does not lead to greater transparency. Or accuracy.

But Dolph will never give us specifics. He'll keep up with the nasty innuendoes and, sadly, some people will believe those translate to the truth. Hopefully, though, one of them won't be Sam Brownback.

(By the way, Dolph asks, "A university today is big business. Would a successful business, in a highly competitive environment, operate as loosely as our state's university's are operating?" Well, considering the steady stream of business disasters, failures and scandals we've seen over the past decade...and the "interesting" revelations we've had lately about local powers-that-be...I'd say the answer is a resounding "YES!")

Bill Staples 7 years, 4 months ago

More "oversight?" Oh Dolph, you and your "knowledgeable observers." When the State now contributes less than 25% in support of the universities, why do you think the clowns in Topeka have any legitimate claim to more "oversight" and "accountability?"

voevoda 7 years, 4 months ago

Mr. Simons, It does appear in this column that you are calling for such a body in hopes that you'll be appointed. However, "more oversight" usually just means more useless data-collection and intrusive micro-managing. There already is a knowledgable group of overseers, to set the university's goals, assess how well it is achieving them, and advise the chancellor and provost. It's the University Senate.
In most public universities, the administrators have appropriated to themselves the powers of the University Senate, leaving it with very limited authority over mundane details. They have done so with the encouragement of State elected officials, who assume that a "business model" is "better" for universities and that professors are airheads. (Not true on either point.) At KU, the University Senate retains some of its former powers, although some administrators have run rampant over them. More often, the central administration just withholds information, so the Senate doesn't know what's going on and can't act. Restore and expand the powers of the University Senate, and KU will have all the oversight it needs.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 4 months ago

Hardly. The university senate is part of the problem. It is a machine of inertia and mediocrity, ensuring that standards or expectations are never raised. It is a body used to justify the existence of mediocre, lazy faculty and to protect their interests by ensuring that standards are not implemented or raised.

voevoda 7 years, 4 months ago

yourworstnightmare, If you had actually watched the faculty work, you'd hold a very different opinion. Faculty work 50-60+ hours per week, investing more time and energy than most business people. The KU faculty are among the best in the world--excellent researchers and dedicated teachers. They work hard to help students, who are often ill-prepared, to succeed at the university. It would help nobody--especially not the State of Kansas--for the faculty to set excessively high standards and then fail students out in droves. Instead, the faculty work to bring students gradually up to the high standards that the faculty members themselves met. Do all students who graduate achieve high levels? No. To a great extent, that's because they don't put enough into their education. Don't blame the faculty for mediocre, lazy students who balk at standards and expectations.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 4 months ago

I was talking about raising standards and performance expectations for faculty, not students.

Yes, many if not most KU faculty are extremely hard-working, especially in engineering and the sciences, where many run full time research labs in addition to teaching.

There is a sizable fraction of KU faculty who are coasting, and in some cases entire departments. Expectations need to be raised so that all KU faculty are productive and contribute.

In the past, the university senate has stood against such measures.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 4 months ago

Hmmm, sounds like another layer of useless bureaucracy to me.

Maybe the governor should motivate the regents to do their jobs and provide critical oversight and standards to universities.

voevoda 7 years, 4 months ago

yourworstnightmare, The kind of "standards" the politicians would set for universities would look like the "standards" for K-12 set by the State Board of Education: politicized, behind the times, limited. When the State Board of Education instituted the ridiculous "intelligent design" standard, Kansas became the laughingstock of the world, and the state hasn't regained its reputation yet. As for oversight, remember when the State Legislature wanted to punish KU for teaching a legitimate course on human sexuality? That made Kansas look ridiculous, too.
The current Board of Regents has the good sense to let the experts--that is, the professors--decide the curriculum and set the standards.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 4 months ago

voevoda, you are conflating performance standards with curriculum. I absolutely agree that the faculty should set the curriculum. This is not what I mean.

KU has fallen well below its peers in almost every method of measuring performance and quality (AAU, NRC, and USNWR come to mind). This has nothing to do with the curriculum but rather what level of productivity and quality is expected of KU faculty.

The regents should ensure that all faculty are striving to meet high levels of productivity and quality that make KU a better research university (publication, books, research grants, humanities fellowships, etc.). What has happened is that performance standards at KU have been allowed to slip and some faculty use this as an excuse to not work hard. After all, they have been allowed to for many years. This must change.

olddognewtrix 7 years, 4 months ago

It seems to me to be acase of inflated opinion from a man whose famuly fortunes were a result of being in a monopoly position in a locality that has KU as its powerfu;l engine of effort and spending. Doplh--KU made you rich --you didn;t do anything to help KU,

equalaccessprivacy 7 years, 4 months ago

In my experience "overseers" just represent more layers of corruption and incompetence.

akuna 7 years, 4 months ago

I love how Republicans espouse the wonders of small government when they aren't in control, but the moment they are, wham, here's another layer of red tape.

I think a better option than a "board of overseers" is two-fold: put in place good whistle blower mechanisms and protections; and to provide more private business/public research opportunities via incubator projects, targeted education and training, and funded internships. The would help make Kansas much more business friendly and allow universities to serve the state more.

equalaccessprivacy 7 years, 4 months ago

Notice how with KU's current "whistleblower's protection" policies you are directed to the same criminal HR people/supposed protectors who are already aggressively busy pointing nasty and dishonest fingers of false blame at others to hide their own guilt?

Commenting has been disabled for this item.