Supporters have cause for concern about drifting KU

As the 2009-2010 Kansas University school year draws to a close, those KU alumni and friends genuinely interested in the excellence of the university have reason to be concerned.

The school is drifting and has been for the past 15 to 17 years. There’s been plenty of lip service but few concrete examples of advancement in its academic mission.

Prior to the formation of the current Big 12 Conference, KU was the flagship institution of the Big Eight. It was one of the first conference schools invited to join the prestigious American Association of Universities and was the academic leader in a broad range or programs. The KU Endowment Association was the leader in total assets of all Big Eight schools.

In subsequent years, however, KU has dropped in national academic rankings. State fiscal support has declined significantly, and several other universities within the conference say they are exploring leaving the Big 12 to join other conferences such as the Big 10 or Pac 10. They claim their universities are more in line with the excellence and research efforts of those conferences, saying indirectly that KU does not provide academic stimulation.

Several reasons can be offered for the decline in state support for KU and the state’s other universities, but it is clear KU has not made a sound, positive case for the state to increase its funding for higher education.

In past years, the KU chancellor served as the spokesperson for all state universities when outlining the importance of adequate state support. State legislators had respect and confidence in KU chancellors and their messages concerning the critical relationship between the state’s health and its level of support for higher education.

Over the years, the Kansas Board of Regents has become politicized and no longer has, or deserves, the respect of legislators — or the public. It now serves as a convenient and easy place for a governor to take care of political IOU’s rather than appointing individuals who are respected and can make a powerful and convincing case for higher education.

In her State of the University address a few weeks ago, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little outlined her major goals: better recruiting of the state’s top high school students, improved student retention, more effective use of scholarship money and better measurement of the excellence of KU’s research programs.

These seem more like remedial actions that acknowledge the school has slipped in these efforts. Where are the great challenges that would inspire faculty, students, parents, taxpayers and legislators?

Faculty morale is not as good as it should be. Some deans seem to be losing support within their own schools, and it is puzzling that Strong Hall is not aware of these situations.

Yes, KU does indeed have programs that are recognized among the nation’s best. Some of these include pharmaceutical chemistry, special education, public administration and speech pathology.

KU Endowment officials are trying to put together a major capital campaign with a goal of probably $1 billion or more. Initial planning for a drive has been under way for a number of years, but, due to situations at Strong Hall, the drive has been delayed or postponed.

Over the years, the KUEA has been very successful in raising private money for the school, and there have been a number of major gifts in recent years. Money contributed to KU Athletics is counted as money raised by the endowment association, and this has helped inflate recent gift totals.

Unfortunately, there is more than the usual level of concern about whether the upcoming drive will have the leadership necessary to inspire donors to make major contributions. The “stars” do not seem aligned at this time for a successful effort.

Where are the giants KU used to have who were quick to tell the school’s story and, at the same time, tell those in Strong Hall, the Board of Regents and state legislators what actions were needed if the university was to grow? These individuals had the courage to tell KU officials to get their acts together.

Where are alumni such as Henry Bubb, Jordan Haines, Bill Douce, Paul Endacott, Bal Jeffrey, Kenneth Spencer, Oscar Stauffer, Tom Veatch, Clay Blair, Roy Edwards and others who had intense interest in KU and would speak up and call for corrective or positive actions?

Today, most anyone who questions or criticizes anything at KU is portrayed as disloyal to the school. Unfortunately, there are too many who publicly voice wild enthusiasm and support for the school and those in senior positions but privately acknowledge things are not as good as they should be. They talk out of both sides of their mouths but don’t have the courage to say or do what is necessary.

The ongoing embarrassing expenditures for the university’s athletics programs have caused serious concern among faculty and alumni. The salaries of some within KU Athletics are almost obscene, as is the case at many other major universities. Again, there is a lot of talk about the need to curb these salaries but no actions.

One of the great assets of the university are those designated as distinguished faculty members. These men and women are recognized as national and world leaders in their respective fields and they have turned down numerous opportunities to accept far more lucrative positions at other universities.

They are far more important to the university than a fancy coach’s office or a $3.2 million super-duper scoreboard, but their salaries, as well as the salaries of most other KU faculty members, are a shame when compared to what KU and other universities are paying those in their athletics programs.

KU has the potential to be a truly great state-aided university and was on its way to that goal in past years. However, it doesn’t have the strong, powerful, visionary and inspirational leadership — on and off the campus — needed to raise KU to a higher level of academic excellence.

Again, a lot of people do a lot of talking about the needs of the university, but they seem to lack the conviction or courage to speak out publicly.

Perhaps the new provost will help bring about positive changes and a far deeper and better overview of how various schools, departments and deans are carrying out their responsibilities. Hopefully, he will make changes where needed. Perhaps the new provost will do a better job of telling the KU story to a Board of Regents that is less than involved or motivated. Perhaps the governor will dig deep into the Kansas talent pool and select some courageous, visionary, knowledgeable and respected individuals as members of the board.

The question is: Why don’t more people get serious about making KU a better school? Don’t they care, are they satisfied with the current operation, or are they afraid to speak out? Complacency and silence are deadly.

What will KU’s position be a year from now compared to what it is today? Just because KU has done well in the past is no guarantee the school can quickly correct current problems.