Recognizing that Kansas University ranks near the bottom in several key categories among its peers in an elite group of research institutions, KU leaders are looking for new ideas to raise the university’s overall quality.
KU Provost Jeff Vitter pointed out areas where KU compares poorly among its peer institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities, a 63-member group that KU has belonged to since 1909.
“KU’s a great institution, but we also have to take a realistic look at where we are to reach the next level of excellence,” Vitter said.
Some examples of problem areas:
• KU ranks in the bottom quartile among AAU schools in several key metrics, including federal research expenditures, national academies memberships, doctoral degrees granted and number of research citations.
• KU ranks 57th among all 61 United States members of the AAU in its U.S. News and World Report overall ranking, and 31st among the 35 AAU public schools.
• Fewer than one-third of KU students graduate in four years, and KU’s six-year graduation rate is 60 percent.
Vitter expressed concern that many non-AAU schools are outperforming KU in these key areas — because, as he pointed out, new schools are joining, and sometimes, schools leave the organization, too.
In order to fix some of the problems, KU officials have begun a strategic planning effort that is in its beginning stages — an official kick-off for the plan is scheduled for today as groups of KU community members will begin looking for ways the university can accomplish its goals of improvement.
“We rely too heavily on some individuals in these areas to be our stars,” Vitter said, adding that he hopes to improve the quality of research across the board at KU.
Likely to be on the docket in the future is some form of tracking the diverse amounts of research done at the institution from chemistry labs to musical compositions, and finding ways to measure it for quality. The groups could also discuss ways to measure research done by professors even after they’ve already acquired tenure.
The process includes attempting to involve as many people as possible, said Mabel Rice, a KU distinguished professor of speech, language and hearing.
“Even if it’s not the way people wanted it to be, they can at least understand how it got that way,” she said.
Though deans and administrators make up the majority of a more than 50-person steering committee for the strategic plan, the committee also has a smaller contingent of tenured and nontenured faculty, students and staff. Another group of KU community members will examine the plan next week.
Chris Haufler, professor and chairman of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been serving as a special assistant to the provost and has been focusing on improving KU’s retention and graduation rates.
He said several measures are in the works, there, too. An office to help KU students with personal finance issues had a recent grand opening on the third floor of the Kansas Union. And KU soon will be looking at scaling back its general education requirements.
About 18 percent of seniors who go to advisers thinking they have enough credits to graduate in their last semesters are told that they’ve missed a general education requirement, Haufler said.
And KU requires 30 to 50 percent more hours devoted to general education requirements courses than its peers, he said.
“High school students are looking at our peers and seeing at KU there’s a substantial difference in the flexibility they can explore at other institutions,” Haufler said.
Vitter said he will work to ensure the strategic planning effort creates a functional plan for the allocation of KU’s resources, and doesn’t become a three-ring binder sitting on a shelf.
“We anticipate this will have a dramatic impact for KU,” he said.