For the past several months, one of the biggest university-related stories around the country has been the firing and hiring of football coaches. High-priced coaches have been fired for not producing anticipated win-loss records, and, in most cases, the universities have had to buy out the remaining years on the coaches’ contracts, frequently totalling in the millions of dollars. As painful as this might be, those calling the shots thought it was in the best interests of the schools to make a quick change.
Then the search begins for replacements, again, costing the school millions of dollars to lure a new coach and also to buy a new assistant coaching staff.
It’s big business in every sense, but university chancellors and presidents, along with their governing boards, apparently believe it is essential to have winning programs in major sports to attract ticket buyers and generate enthusiasm among alumni, friends and fiscal contributors.
It appears there may be the beginning of a similar line of thinking relative to the academic side of universities.
The Oregon State Board of Higher Education didn’t wait around or procrastinate before deciding recently to fire the president at the University of Oregon, former Kansas University Provost Richard Lariviere.
If college football coaches and basketball coaches are fired rather routinely for not measuring up, and if college presidents and chancellors can be fired for not measuring up, is there any reason not to believe the public is going to become more interested in asking why college deans are not fired more often?
University alumni, students and parents of students, along with taxpayers who are footing a large share of the cost of running a university have every reason to expect deans of schools to measure up. A good dean can work wonders for a school or department, while a lazy, ineffective dean, who does not have the respect of fellow faculty members, students and alumni can inflict considerable damage on a university.
A good dean can make a major difference in improving morale within the faculty and enthusiasm among students, play a significant role in attracting superior students and faculty and raise far more money for the school and university.
A case in point is the current situation at the KU School of Medicine with Barbara Atkinson, who serves as executive vice chancellor as well as executive dean.
A recent evaluation of Atkinson by her faculty is reported to be “shockingly bad.” The morale among faculty is bad. Atkinson and KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little have worked out a timetable in which Atkinson will vacate her dean’s position at some unspecified date and then remain as vice chancellor for another two years.
It is not a good situation. In fact, it is bad and growing worse. And the chancellor and those serving on the Kansas Board of Regents also look bad because they apparently do not have the courage to call for an immediate change. It would be interesting to know whether all of the regents have read the results of the faculty assessment of Atkinson.
The two-year delay in Atkinson’s departure is likely to result in growing damage to the school. She has lost the respect of a high percentage of staff. Likewise, respect for the chancellor and regents has been damaged in the eyes of many, not just those at the medical school, because of their apparent blindness to what is going on. Or if they do know how serious the matter is, why don’t they have the courage to make the necessary changes?
If a coach can be bought out, why can’t a dean be bought out? Under the deal with Gray-Little (by the way, it is interesting to know who Atkinson reports to; it seems the only person she reports to is the chancellor), Atkinson has two more years in office. She is the highest-paid state employee, making between $500,000 and $600,000.
Again, if a coach’s contract can be bought out, why not a dean or vice chancellor or even a chancellor or president, as was the case with Lariviere? If the individual has tenure, he or she can be kept on as a teacher, as was former KU School of Business dean Bill Fuerst.
Atkinson’s salary is low compared with what it costs to buy out a coach’s contract.
Regardless of the money, something needs to be done and done quickly. The idea of leaving Atkinson, who has lost the respect of her faculty, on the job as a lame duck for two more years is bad and dangerous for the school. Also, based on her style of management, she could be expected to try to “get even” with those who have been critical of her leadership.
The action, or inaction, of the chancellor and Board of Regents relative to the KU medical school mess will send a clear message to a broad spectrum of faculty, students, alumni, friends and other interested parties about the chancellor’s and board’s vision and commitment to excellence.