Issues at KU, Bioscience Authority spur New Year’s wishes

Now’s the time of year when people start thinking about New Year’s resolutions and how they would like to make some positive changes for themselves or for society in general.

At the outset, this writer acknowledges he has some personal challenges and improvements on his own list of resolutions. However, shifting to other resolutions, there are many on the wish list but three, in particular, that pertain to Kansas University and higher education in Kansas. In no particular order, here are those three:

• A wish that KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and/or the Kansas Board of Regents will step up to the plate, screw up their courage and remove Barbara Atkinson as executive vice chancellor and dean of the KU School of Medicine.

• A second wish involves the Board of Regents. It’s obvious, for one reason or another, the board does not have as good a handle on what is going on at the state’s six universities, 19 community colleges, the KU School of Medicine, the Kansas State School of Veterinary Medicine and six technical schools. This is shortchanging the state, its taxpayers, students and faculty.

• Although not directly tied to the universities or higher education, a final wish is that more attention needs to be given to the nomination of individuals to serve as trustees of the Kansas Bioscience Authority. This group can play a tremendous role in the betterment of Kansas, but in recent years it has been used for partisan political objectives.

Getting back to the first wish concerning the KU medical school situation. Gov. Sam Brownback has made it clear he wants to see the school advance in national rankings. He cites the tremendous record of the KU Hospital and how it climbed in a period of about 15 years.

Fifteen years ago, it faced three alternatives: close it, sell it or make the necessary changes to build it into a national leader. Today the hospital ranks among the top five teaching hospitals in the country and has been cited by U.S. News & World Report as among the nation’s best in a number of categories and Kansas City’s best hospital. The reason? Excellent, visionary leadership, a board that is on top of the overall operation, a commitment to making the welfare of patients the No. 1 priority and great staff morale.

Unfortunately, this is lacking at the KU medical school. It is clear the KU School of Medicine has little chance of achieving the level of excellence reached by KU Hospital unless Atkinson is removed from her leadership positions.

Next, the regents. Those serving on the Kansas Board of Regents are well-intentioned men and women, but the demands placed on this nine-member body are far greater today than they were years ago. It is obvious the regents are not as well-informed and up to date as they should be about what is going on at the various campuses. They are being spoon-fed by the chancellor, presidents and provosts and are not aware of serious troubles. For example, they knew little about the terrible and criminal mess in the KU athletics department until it finally exploded in the media. They knew nothing about the manner in which Lew Perkins ran the department and little about the recent mess in the KU School of Business. They also have allowed the mess in the KU School of Medicine to grow and spread without intervening. Who knows how many other situations exist at the other regents schools across the state?

The responsibilities of the regents have grown to a level that they need a way to stay better informed of what is happening in and around the state’s higher education system.

It would be good to have a group of highly qualified individuals selected to serve as the eyes and ears for the regents at each school. They would have no power to bring about any change. Their only role would be to be alert to situations that could develop into more serious problems, offer their observations and do what they could to give the regents the best chance of helping each institution reach its potential in serving the state.

Members of these groups should not be selected by the schools’ alumni boards, endowment boards or athletic boards and they shouldn’t be drawn from the schools’ largest fiscal supporters. They should not reflect partisan political motives but rather be groups, not too big, of committed, honest people who are genuinely interested in what’s best for the schools.

Face it. Today the regents do not have the knowledge they need to do a good, thorough job.

There could be separate panels or groups for the KU School of Medicine and the Kansas State School of Veterinary Medicine. Are there situations at the veterinary school that are keeping that school from receiving higher levels of national recognition? How does KSU rank nationally?

Next, the KBA. This association can be a powerful force in helping Kansas become a better state in so many ways. Unfortunately, a year or so after the association started to show impressive success in attracting new business and new jobs, initiating plans to attract star-quality researchers and faculty to the state’s universities and setting up early planning to attract the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to Manhattan, politics entered the picture. Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius wanted to inject politics into the board of trustees positions just as she tried to do with the KU Hospital board. It was an ugly scene. There were, and currently are, several investigations into what took place in recent years and, unfortunately, the much-touted forensic audit of the activities of the KBA board and its former leader, Tom Thornton, is likely to be incomplete, prove little or be pretty much a whitewash, just like the forensic audit of the KU athletics department.

What can you expect when the firm or individual being investigated selects the firm to conduct the audit?

There are several vacancies coming up on the KBA board. It would be good if the governor called a meeting of those who make board appointments — the Senate and House majority and minority leaders, plus the governor — and emphasize the importance of nominating individuals on their merit, their excellence and what they can do for the state, rather than using the appointments to reward friends, pay off political IOUs or load the board with individuals loyal to one university or another.

One more matter. KU Chancellor Gray-Little, Provost Jeff Vitter and others are to be complimented on their recently announced goals for the university. A great deal of work went into distilling hundreds of ideas and dreams.

The goals sound worthy, and the vision is to be applauded, BUT what are the timely targets? How will we know if and when the goals have been achieved? What will be the mark of success in three, five or 10 years? Are there immediate goals and benchmarks?

Some years ago, former KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway challenged the university community to aim for very high goals. First, he called for KU academically to become one of the top 25 state universities in the country and then move into the top 25 of all research universities. These goals got the attention of all interested in KU, but for one reason or another, the efforts and achievements fell far short.

Gray-Little’s goals are more modest, but again, what are the time targets and how will we know if and when they have been reached?

Unfortunately, history shows a high percentage of well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions fall short, but that’s no reason not to set some challenging goals.