Some time in the next several days, Kansas University School of Medicine faculty members will be receiving forms from KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little’s office asking them to fill out a performance review questionnaire on Barbara Atkinson, executive dean of the School of Medicine and Executive Vice Chancellor.
According to various medical school sources, this is the first time Atkinson has undergone a review, contrary to the policies of the medical school, which call for periodic reviews of all deans and department chairs. Atkinson has been at the medical school since 2000 and was named executive dean in 2002.
This review comes at a time when morale at the school is poor and deteriorating, and many faculty members question Atkinson’s leadership and management skills. There has been unrest at the school for some time, and in recent years, the role Atkinson played in trying to provide aid for Kansas City’s Saint Luke’s Hospital at the expense of the school and KU Hospital; the firing and the manner of the firing of one of the school’s most distinguished researchers and teachers; the manner in which Atkinson filled a vacancy created by the retirement of highly respected Ed Phillips, vice chancellor for administration; and questions surrounding the recent resignation, or firing, of a staff member who had served as an associate director of the school’s cancer center, all have added to questions about Atkinson’s ability to lead the school.
Medical School sources tell this writer a search for an assistant and backup for Dr. Roy Jensen, director of the cancer center, had been under way for some time, with several interviewees turning down the job. The departed assistant had been hired just last July, and Atkinson’s critics say the hiring of that individual is evidence of her poor management skills, in that before being hired by KU, he had held five different university positions in eight years and that there were unanswered questions about him.
This comes at a particularly bad time for the university as it has been planning to submit an application sometime this fall, most likely in September, to have the Medical School designated as a National Cancer Center.
Some at the school say there now is serious discussion under way about whether to delay the school’s application for the national cancer center designation because of internal situations at the school.
A massive three- to five-year effort has been under way at the school to obtain the prestigious designation, and it would be a major and discouraging blow to those who have worked so hard to achieve this title to learn of a significant delay.
Atkinson’s critics at the school of medicine claim that the leadership situation is “fragile” and that the review of her performance comes at a terribly important time. Some who received word of the upcoming review have asked whether answers to the review will be handled in a confidential, anonymous manner. If not, it is doubtful the chancellor will receive an objective picture of the situation at the medical school.
With the recent attention given Gov. Sam Brownback’s appointment of three new regents, it will be interesting to see if the Board of Regents will be brought into the discussion about the leadership and management of the medical school. It is known one of the governor’s goals is to have the medical school raise its national rankings and reputation, just as the KU Hospital has done over the past 13 years.
Many people question whether significant improvements can be made with Atkinson’s leadership, and they claim there may be a number of superior staff members who will decide to leave if Atkinson is retained.
With the performance review due to be sent out this coming week, it appears the medical school leadership question now is clearly in the hands of Chancellor Gray-Little. A great deal rides on her decision.