On Saturday the publisher of this newspaper devoted his column to arguing for a new governance structure for Kansas University. He suggested that, perhaps, a new “Board of Overseers,” drawn, in part, from the state’s business community, be created. This board could devote more attention to the everyday operation of the university than the present Board of Regents can devote to this. I’m afraid that I must disagree not only with the suggestion, but, also, with the reasoning behind it.
There’s no question that the university has had its share of problems over the past few years. However, we have to remember that the problems that have come to the fore in the past two years were neither created nor exacerbated by the present university administration. On the contrary, the top ranks of the university administration inherited these problems and have been attempting to solve them, or, at least, so it appears to me. Indeed, there’s every indication coming from the Provost’s Office that it’s not business as usual in Strong Hall but, rather, that changes are under way. I think that it would be unwise and unfair to our new administration not to give it a chance to see what it can accomplish before making radical changes in the university’s governance structure.
One frequently hears that faculty morale at KU is low these days. I’m not really sure how one gauges that. I haven’t seen any surveys that indicate morale is lower today than it has been in the past few years. I do think that the faculty and the staff are feeling the consequences of two years without a salary increment. It’s certainly not something any rational human being would be happy about. On the other hand, I think most of the faculty and staff at KU understand the state’s economic problems. We don’t live in some secluded paradise. It’s impossible not to see the unemployment statistics and the very real pain our neighbors who are unemployed or underemployed are feeling. Most of us realize that we, too, must share in the pain. I think it’s fair to say that the nation’s morale is low, but I don’t think that a change in university governance will affect that sad fact.
To me, the strongest argument against creating another layer of administration and oversight is that it would be inefficient. We don’t need more administrators. It would also further contribute to the notion that a university is like any other business. It’s not. Any faculty member will tell you that. We’re not about profit and loss statements; we’re about educating students and doing high quality research that benefits the state and nation. And I think that we’re doing that. You cannot run a university like a steel company. It won’t work.
That’s not to say that universities shouldn’t be run effectively and efficiently. They should. But to run a university well requires an understanding of how universities are different from traditional for-profit businesses. A group of successful businessmen will not have that understanding. I think that the best thing that can be done for KU is to give our new administrators a reasonable chance to improve things. KU is a great university with a large number of dedicated alumni, faculty and staff. It has some problems now, and it has had problems in the past. But, with time and effort, those problems will be solved. KU has survived and thrived for more than a century. I believe that it will continue to survive and thrive for centuries to come.