Archive for Saturday, January 29, 2011

Funding closely tied to Kansas University’s success

January 29, 2011


Earlier this week, Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little delivered a “state of the university” address, her first such presentation.

The chancellor’s assessment of the current state of affairs at KU followed similar presentations by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on the state of affairs in Kansas and this week’s address by President Obama on how he views the state of affairs in this country.

The chancellor, governor and president all face severe challenges within their respective jurisdictions, and there are no easy, painless solutions to the problems. Money seems to be the principal problem, how to raise more money for more programs, how to reduce expenses without severely damaging essential programs and how to inspire or motivate citizens to strive for excellence.

Gray-Little focused on several specific areas in her presentation: how to attract and hold students by increasing the number of four-year scholarships, how to elevate the university’s position relative to the prestigious Association of American Universities, and the ongoing effort to update the university’s general education requirements and methods to create a new system to measure faculty research and its input and importance to the state.

Money, a lot of money, is needed if Gray-Little and the university are going to be able to address the challenges noted by the chancellor.

This places even more importance on the long-delayed university and KU Endowment Association capital campaign. Is there sufficient enthusiasm and excitement about the university to encourage alumni and friends to be generous in their giving when the drive gets under way, and will prospective donors feel confident university leaders will spend their dollars in an effective manner for projects that resonate with those giving the money?

This writer has long believed “excellence” will make the difference between those schools that grow in stature and respect versus those that merely drift with the tide, those where leaders and representatives talk the talk but really walk in circles with little forward movement.

KU should be and can be a true leader among state-aided universities, but something has to be done to excite and enthuse the general citizenry about the excellence of the institution and what it means to the future development of the state. This spark and excitement has been lacking, actually absent, in recent years, and Gray-Little’s acknowledgment that KU is lagging behind its peers in the AAU offers ample proof of this stagnation.

The chancellor presented a grocery list of important accomplishments, goals and challenges, but this writer believes the recruitment and retention of truly distinguished faculty deserves higher priority. You have to have a great faculty to have a chance of being a great university. Of course, here again, money is a major part of the problem. The other part is the commitment to go out and seek the very best, elevate the excellence of the faculty and not settle for the easiest hires.

KU has a number of distinguished faculty members already on the Mount Oread campus and those at the KU Hospital and medical school in Kansas City, but it needs more.

Top-flight, stimulating, highly respected faculty members would seem the best way to attract and hold the upper tier of high school students, as well as attract superior doctoral students. Excellence in the classroom and laboratories appears the best way to encourage state legislators to realize the importance of the university and encourage alumni and friends to be generous in their fiscal support of the school.

Granted, it’s the old question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg, but money and visionary leadership go hand in hand relative to KU’s current problems. Also, as has been pointed out time and time again, KU does a lousy job of telling its story.

The chancellor cited many areas of excellence and achievements of the school’s faculty, but how many people throughout Kansas have any idea or appreciation of this excellence?

There is great frustration among many KU alumni in that they want “their school” to be a leader, one of the best, and they can’t figure out what’s holding it back. The disgraceful situation in the athletics department was an embarrassment, and many are concerned about the apparent inability to fill open deanships and other important positions with true and acknowledged leaders in their respective fields.

It’s good Gray-Little delivered her state of the university assessment. Hopefully it will cause those interested in KU to give serious thought to what is needed to elevate the school to higher academic and research positions and national recognition.


LJD230 7 years, 4 months ago

Perhaps the writer of this opinion piece will go bang his drum in Topeka!

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 4 months ago

Mr. Simons is spot on.

Money and funding are big problems.

KU is also plagued by a culture of low expectations and mediocrity and by an administration who themselves come from this culture and thus maintain it.

The new strategic planning and faculty performance initiatives are the right directions to go. As you might imagine, many faculty and administrators are very opposed to these initiatives, lest they unfeather their little nests of mediocrity in the university.

We just read about an example of the unwillingness of the KU administration to retain top faculty. The biocomputing professor Yang Zhang left not because of money but because of a failure of KU administrators to make tough decisions about using available funds effectively to retain this apparantly star-quality faculty member.

KU will not excel, no matter how much money it has, until this top-to-bottom culture of mediocrity is broken, starting with department chairs, deans and provosts.

LJD230 7 years, 4 months ago

You can bang your drum in Topeka also!

LJD230 7 years, 4 months ago

Your rant contradicts itself. Hopefully you are not a faculty member at KU.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 4 months ago

How? I acknowledge that money is critical, but that KU is plagued by mediocrity that money alone cannot overcome.

took_the_money_and_ran 7 years, 4 months ago

It sounds to me like Prof. Zhang declared he was a free agent, and like some star pro athletes, found free agency very lucrative. Other people go through the same process and find out they are worth much less on the market than they thought. Still others get an offer but find they get paltry counteroffers, because the department chair, dean, and provost are sick of them. You just don't know for sure until you try.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 4 months ago

Spoken like a true KU administrator.

Abdicate all responsibility and throw up your hands and say "Gosh, nothing could be done".

In term of "getting sick" of faculty, this is part of the problem. At KU, administrators "get sick" of successful faculty because they are successful and put the mediocrity of other faculty and administrators in bas relief.

Paul R Getto 7 years, 4 months ago

" Money seems to be the principal problem, how to raise more money for more programs, how to reduce expenses without severely damaging essential programs and how to inspire or motivate citizens to strive for excellence." === Not a bad point. Money does matter, for the university, for the military, for business and for another other enterprise that lives on dollars not air. This debate is of interest because some are winning the argument that 'money doesn't matter' in two critical organizations....public schools and universities. These same people generally accept that money is critical in other large organizations and fail to detect the irony in their position. Of course money matters; well-funded schools and universities are more effective than those who are not. For a KU column, this one is better than most. Now, Mr. Editor, beat up on the legislature and see if they really believe here in Kochkansas that money only matters in some circumstances and not in others where the ideology drives logic out of the debate. A hint: start with the tax breaks that took 90% of the property and 75% of the sales off the books. Maybe there are some opportunities there. Rest assured, if you threaten any business or organization's tax breaks, they will, indeed, tell you that 'money matters.'

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 4 months ago

Of course money matters, and it is wrong-headed to argue that it does not, as you rightly point out is being done by the GOP when it comes to education.

My point is that money is not the only problem. Money alone will not solve KU's culture of mediocrity and low performance.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 4 months ago

Along those same lines, KU needs to show why it deserves more money. Simply saying "education" is not good enough anymore for a research university. Sad but true.

KU needs to make clear the millions of dollars brought in through external grants, which in turn create jobs and bring in more revenue. KU also needs to tout its centrality to the technology industry that is trying to take hold in Kansas. KU provides the ideas and the trained personnel for any technology company that might want to start here.

KU needs to move beyond the "we educate Kansans" justification to a more dynamic and nuanced exhibition of its strengths and benefits.

voevoda 7 years, 4 months ago

I agree, Mr. Simons, that KU can't excel if it isn't funded sufficiently. I agree, too, that excellent faculty attract successful students. They also produce the research that brings international stature and they attract the external funding that augments tuition, state subsidies, and donations to keep the university operating. Excellent faculty can't consist simply of a few "stars," retained at great expense. Instead, excellent faculty consists of cadres of high-quality scholars. They are recruited and retained by maintaining competitive salaries and benefits, and by treating them with respect. The anti-intellectual attitude prevalent in the ruling party in this state seems intransigent. It doesn't matter what KU administrators, faculty, and students say about the value of the education and research produced here. The problem isn't how KU leaders are delivering the message; the problem is on the receiving end. Too many state leaders have closed minds. That's why there have been attacks on the university budget even in years when the economy has been good. Why should faculty strive to work harder, produce more research, remain loyal to Kansas, when they are facing a 7.5% pay cut in order to transfer money to the construction industry? It's no wonder that faculty get discouraged. The wonder is that KU is as good as it is, given the situation.

LJD230 7 years, 4 months ago

Superb assessment and observation. Is there any other state in the union that serves as the butt of so many jokes?

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 4 months ago

Agreed. because we have a backward state and legislature, it is all the mre important to articulate an argument clearly and effectively. Do not allow them to hide behind their ignorance.

In terms of why should faculty work hard despite a hostile state and paycuts: because faculty are supposed to be professionals motivated by a love of their discipline and the desire to advance knowledge.

You play right into the hands of the ignoramuses in the legislature when you surrender your professionalism.

The better faculty are, the more reason there is for the state to fund the university and the better the chance that that member could move to another university.

It is a win win for all.

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