These are serious, but promising, times for Kansas University.
Decisions made in the search, recruitment and selection of a new provost and deans for the School of Law, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Music, collectively and individually, will play a major role in the future growth and excellence of the university.
If those on the various search committees do, or have done, an excellent job in scouring the country to identify and attract highly qualified individuals to consider one of the KU vacancies, then the university will have a chance, not a guarantee, to put together a new team of solid, well-qualified individuals who can make a terrific and positive impact on the university.
Unfortunately, university officials, or perhaps members of the Kansas Board of Regents, have ruled that on-campus visits by the candidate will be public events at which finalists for the provost and dean positions will be paraded before several audiences of faculty.
Undoubtedly, KU lost the interest of some candidates because of this beauty-contest, cattle-show approach. It’s one of those “politically correct” things that some think is important, but the university and the state pay a steep price when those on the search committees and the chancellor, not the broader faculty staff or students, will make the final decisions.
Aside from this negative, KU has a lot to offer to a new provost and the three new deans. Granted, the fiscal situation is bad, but this is true in most every state and at most every state-aided institution. Also, there is greater churn these days among faculty throughout the country and, consequently, more top-flight individuals might be thinking about making a change, moving to other schools.
According to some, those on the provost search committee have been given a free hand in their search process. Obviously, they have to operate with reasonable restraints, but they have the encouragement to “go for the best.”
What are some of the positives about the KU positions?
First, there is a hunger among the faculty and students for leadership, vision and enthusiasm. They want, and will welcome, “new blood,” new energy and inspired leadership.
KU has a new chancellor, just entering her second semester on the job. Bernadette Gray-Little has said all the right things, and those relatively close to her say she is indeed committed to academic and research excellence and attracting better faculty and better students. She also is concerned about better retention of students and the importance of increased funding, private, state and research-related.
She has only been on the job for a short time, so it is too early to compile a track record for her at KU, but, again, those working with her are both enthused and hopeful.
It stands to reason she wants outstanding individuals to move into the openings, particularly the provost’s position, the senior and most powerful academic job.
KU enjoys a proud past, but there is no guarantee this can be continued without superior faculty members and leadership from the deans, provost and chancellor.
KU enjoys tremendous and loyal support from its alumni. They, too, are hungry for leadership in Strong Hall and throughout the campus. Most every major university is quick to point to its strong alumni support, but history shows few schools can match the sustained, intense loyalty KU enjoys.
Likewise, the record of the KU Endowment Association is a matter of public record. As past chancellors have noted, the level of private fiscal support to KU through the Endowment Association has provided the “extras” and funding that have made the difference between KU being an average state-assisted university and an excellent state-aided school. KU was an early member of the American Association of Universities, the first among the old Big Eight Conference schools.
It is the flagship institution of the state, and those committed to making KU an even better school want it to be a regional “flagship” institution.
The town-gown relationship at KU has been excellent over the years. Past chancellors who have retired or left KU for other positions have told this writer their time in Lawrence and at KU were the most enjoyable of their academic careers. This is not automatic or guaranteed, as it takes the hard work, mutual respect and cooperation of all parties, but it does indicate there is a positive, mutually respectful environment in the community.
The hunger that exists for leadership, vision, a sense of excitement and excellence cannot be overemphasized. This is why the provost and dean positions should be highly attractive to educators/administrators who have confidence in their abilities — individuals who can inspire and lead, who look forward to the opportunity to improve their respective schools and the university and those who want to make a difference in the school and have an opportunity to showcase their own skills and excellence.
It’s something like a change in a football coaching staff. The chancellor is the head coach, but in so many ways, the head coach is not going to be able to attract good players, compile a winning record, get the most out of his players and win championships without top-flight assistant coaches.
Gray-Little needs excellent deans and a superior provost if KU is to be a winner in every respect.
If the search committees have been successful in attracting strong, superior individuals, there is reason to believe the best days of KU can be still ahead. The fuel, materials and potential is present, but there needs to be a spark to ignite this pent-up desire to see KU take advantage of the many opportunities to be recognized as a true regional flagship institution.
A superior provost, a new group of exceptional deans and a new chancellor all could combine their efforts and enlist the support and effort of other deans and faculty members to supply this critical and recently missing spark.
The results could be tremendous.