It didn’t take Kansas University’s new chancellor long to figure out one thing about KU and its relationship with Kansas.
Speaking last week to a local Rotary Club, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said she had noticed that once she got past the middle of the state, people started to tell her KU didn’t do a good job of recruiting, not as good as “another Kansas institution,” presumably Kansas State University. People in the western half of Kansas also told her that they didn’t see their area as “a KU part of the state.”
“I not willing to concede that there’s any part of the state that isn’t a KU part of the state,” Gray-Little told the Rotarians.
That’s good news on two counts. First, less than a year into her term as chancellor, Gray-Little has gotten out into the state enough to hear western Kansas residents talk about KU. Second, she apparently was listening to what they said.
It’s certainly not news that western Kansas has closer ties to K-State than to KU. Agricultural areas have a natural tie to K-State Extension programs. K-State is about 80 miles west of KU and more geographically accessible to the western part of the state. And there’s simply a feeling that K-State cares more about the rural, western parts of the state. The reputation of KU as “Snob Hill” is alive and well, especially west of Wichita.
The situation is made worse by reports that K-State is far more attentive to the western part of the state when it comes to recruiting prospective students. KU is all over Johnson County, but top students in western Kansas too often feel overlooked.
Although KU supplies a high percentage of the state’s doctors and is reaching out to the state in other ways, the university simply hasn’t done a good job of convincing the people in western Kansas that KU is important and relevant to their lives. That hurts KU in many ways. Not only does it miss out on good students and alumni support in the western half of the state, it also can affect the reception KU proposals receive in the Kansas Legislature.
Gray-Little also told Rotary members of university plans to seek higher admissions standards for KU. The hope is that raising the standards will mean that Kansas students are more likely to stay in school and complete degrees. It makes some sense for both the students and the university, but the chancellor may have her work cut out for her as she tries to sell that idea to western Kansas students, parents and legislators — especially if K-State tuition and admission standards are lower than KU’s.
It’s good that Gray-Little is listening and gaining understanding about the different attitudes toward KU from across the state. We hope she’s successful in raising KU’s profile and support not only in Johnson County but west to the Colorado border.