Finally there is someone at Kansas University in a senior administrative position who believes rankings are important — in academic achievements as well as in athletics.
For years, U.S. News & World Report has compiled numerous rankings of American universities, public and private, and how various schools and departments within these schools rank in comparison with other schools.
This annual report enjoys tremendous interest among high school students, their parents, state legislators who appropriate money to help support public institutions, various philanthropic organizations and those who are generous in their giving to public and private universities, faculty members who are interested in how their particular school or department measures up with similar programs at other universities, and college presidents and chancellors.
They realize tens of thousands of students and parents make decisions relative to colleges and universities on how the institutions are ranked in the U.S. News report as well as in other publications that rank academic institutions.
And yet, year after year, KU officials have downplayed the significance of these reports, suggesting it is wrong to place too much emphasis on the standings.
There always seemed to be some reason to dismiss the importance of academic rankings.
At last a senior KU official, new Provost Jeff Vitter, has made it clear rankings are indeed important, very important, and that he intends to do what he can to see KU’s rankings start to climb.
The Association of American Universities is the nation’s top association of research universities — public and private. The 63-member schools represent the best of the best.
KU was an early member of the AAU, perhaps the first in the old Big Six, Big Seven or Big Eight conferences. KU was looked upon as a leader among state-aided universities.
However, according to Vitter, KU now ranks in the bottom quartile among AAU schools in several key metrics, including federal research expenditures, national academies memberships, doctoral degrees granted and a number of research citations.
He points out KU ranks 57th among all the 61 AAU members in the United States in the U.S. News & World Report rankings and 31st among the 35 AAU public schools.
Furthermore, less than one-third of KU students graduate in four years and KU’s six-year graduation rate is 60 percent.
Vitter said, “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.”
The former Texas A&M provost said he is concerned many non-AAU schools are outperforming KU in key areas and that AAU membership is not guaranteed. With other schools invited to join and other schools leaving the organization, KU must make sure it is not dropped from the prestigious association.
Previous KU officials have set high goals for the university, such as KU moving into the top 25 of all state-aided institutions and that once this goal was achieved, work to join the top 25 of all American universities, public and private.
This all sounded good, for a time, but growing numbers of KU friends started to wake up to the fact the school was dropping, not rising, in rankings in various categories. There always was some qualifying excuse offered by KU officials and the suggestion too much emphasis is placed on magazine rankings.
Vitter makes it clear KU must get better, particularly in light of tougher competition throughout the country and also within the state.
The quiet-spoken Vitter has had a rude awakening in his first months at KU, such as the embarrassing situation at the School of Business. He had nothing to do with the mess and it would have remained a mess if it hadn’t been for the courage, concern and commitment of several business school graduate students. These MBA students called attention to highly questionable actions within the school and questioned if business school students, who had paid more than $32 million in extra differential tuition to the school over the past six years, were getting what they had been promised or guaranteed in an improved and expanded educational program.
The matter was serious enough that Vitter and others called for an independent audit of the business school programs as well as similar programs at other schools within the university.
It also was sufficiently serious that the students asked that business school dean William Fuerst be fired. He “resigned” shortly thereafter but will remain a member of the faculty.
The “review” or “audit” was made public this week and if not a whitewash, it was at least an effort to paint the school and its senior officials as complying with “most” of the requirements called for in the differential tuition agreement and that the students’ concerns were overplayed.
It’s obvious there were serious problems within the business school and it’s too bad school and university officials still will not acknowledge the seriousness of these situations.
The business school matter illustrates there hasn’t been the degree of oversight there should be by those in the chancellor’s and provost’s office and by deans.
The business school situation is a mess. One of the MBA students who attended a meeting this week of students and Vitter told this writer those at the gathering were not impressed with the provost’s handling of this matter, or his awareness, at least publicly, of what has been going on at the business school. However, he said, “nearly everyone agreed that Provost Vitter has inherited an incredibly difficult position.”
He cannot be held responsible for the lack of leadership in recent years and poor faculty morale. And he cannot change things overnight. It’s going to take time but it is critical that changes are made.
There are hopeful signs such as Vitter’s concern about how the university ranks among AAU schools and his determination to make improvements. It’s hoped he will set high standards for the deans of all schools and not accept complacency and/or mediocrity.
As Vitter said, “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 is the man in charge of the academic side of the university. The chancellor is more involved with off-campus affairs of the institution, but Vitter’s effectiveness will play a significant role in how the university is viewed and judged by off-campus alumni and friends.
It is hoped those interested in the welfare and excellence of the university will realize and appreciate the courage of a handful of students who were sufficiently concerned about what was going on, and had been allowed to go on within their school, to stand up and call attention to the situation and demand corrective actions.
They have performed a tremendous service on behalf of the university.