Several weeks ago, Kansas Board of Regents Chairman Ed McKechnie wrote a letter to the Journal-World’s Public Forum in which he praised the accomplishments of Barbara Atkinson, executive vice chancellor of the Kansas University Medical Center and dean of the KU School of Medicine.
He said “the current leadership is to be commended.” He noted the “organizational change” at the KU Medical Center in which Atkinson will step down as dean of the School of Medicine once a new dean is selected and retire as executive vice chancellor in two years. McKechnie added, “this orderly transition will allow KU Med to make continued progress.”
The Pittsburg businessman, who was appointed to the regents by former Gov. Mark Parkinson, said the organizational change with Atkinson remaining for another two years as boss of the school was done with steady, thoughtful consideration and that he wanted the public to know the Board of Regents is “working hard, working together, to make the Med Center the best it can be.”
This sounds great, and the letter obviously was written to dispel any concerns the public might have about the leadership, vision and morale of the medical center staff. It also was a way to send the message that the regents have been alert and on top of all that is going on at the medical school.
The fact is, the public has every reason to wonder whether the regents have had any idea what was going on at the school: the poor morale, frustration and dissatisfaction with Atkinson’s leadership. McKecnhie said he and KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little have had extensive discussions about the KU Medical Center.
If so, why didn’t they call for immediate changes and why would they allow Atkinson to remain as head of the medical center for another two years when the faculty is angry, disappointed and frustrated with how she runs things? Did the regents have any idea of the seriousness of the situation? Why did they allow Atkinson to determine the timing and conditions of her “organizational change”?
Rather than being on top of the situation, this is another case of the regents apparently being out of the loop on many facets of what is going on at KU, such as the recent serious troubles within the School of Business, the handling of the chancellor situation during the last four or five years of Robert Hemenway’s tenure and their total blindness to what was taking place under Lew Perkins’ leadership of the KU athletics department.
If they were not out of the loop, why didn’t they have the courage to take action and correct the situations? Will the public ever be told the results of the survey regents conducted among about 150 alumni, business leaders and other knowledgeable individuals at each regents university seeking opinions on the kind of job the presidents and chancellor were doing?
Getting back to the current situation at the medical school. Although McKechnie wants the public to think everything is fine and well planned, a growing number of KU medical school faculty members are terribly concerned.
The following are direct quotes from distinguished faculty members of the school. It is understandable that they wish to have their names held in confidence, particularly in light of the way Atkinson rules the school and the fact she intends to remain as the senior official for another two years — courtesy of the chancellor and the regents. Here’s what faculty members are saying:
• “Why can’t the Kansas Board of Regents act with the courage and decisiveness of the Oregon education board (which recently fired the former KU provost who was serving as president of the University of Oregon)?”
• “People are shocked she (Atkinson) plans to be here for another two years.”
• “We have to wait two years to see what is going to happen.”
• “There is nothing more the faculty can do; nothing has changed. We had the courage and honesty to fill out the assessment of Atkinson. What more can we do?”
• “What is Doug Girod (senior associate dean) to do? She (Atkinson) trots him out as her successor but doesn’t follow through and it could be two years. How long will he stay?”
• “The future of the school is hanging in the balance.”
• “We are going to lose many of our excellent people if they are expected to wait for two years to find out who is going to be their boss.”
• “The idea you could bring in someone from the outside and put them in charge to run the school is ridiculous. It would take them a year or more to find the bathrooms, not to mention to know all the players and how to run the school.”
• “We are in a catastrophic state financially.”
• “There is no faculty governance.”
• “We probably will have good people leaving in six months.”
• “It is reported she (Atkinson) handpicked most of the members of the committee to find a new dean.”
• “Don’t sell Atkinson short; she would like to be the chancellor.”
• “The chancellor and/or the regents are in a state of paralysis … It’s like walking through Jell-O around here.”
What are the regents thinking, what is the chancellor thinking when Atkinson’s own faculty give her a vote of no confidence?
Their assessment of Atkinson is clear. The faculty have done everything they can. They have placed themselves on the line and said how bad it is and how she operates. “What more can we do?” they ask. Now it’s up to Gray-Little and the regents to demonstrate they have the courage and commitment to do what is necessary to make the school as good as possible.
So far, they are acting like the three monkeys with their eyes, ears and mouths covered, signaling they will see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.
These firsthand assessments of the situation today at the medical school don’t indicate everything is fine and progressing in an orderly and timely manner, as McKechnie and some senior people on Mount Oread would like the public to believe.