Kansas University enjoys a proud history, and there’s no reason it should not sustain or improve this record of excellence and achievement. However, during the past six or so years, something has happened, and the excitement, enthusiasm, vision and pride in the university seem to have stalled or gone into hibernation.
At the outset, this writer is quick to note there are areas of true excellence at the university that are among the nation’s best. There are faculty members who are looked upon as giants in their respective fields. The KU Alumni Association does an excellent job of trying to energize the institution’s alumni scattered throughout the nation and around the world. KU Hospital in Kansas City is a tremendous success story and now ranks in the top five U.S. teaching hospitals.
It’s a good, state-aided university, but it could be better, one of the best, and this is what’s frustrating to growing numbers of KU alumni, friends, faculty and others. They want KU to be a true flagship institution, regionally and nationally.
This week’s U.S. News and World Report magazine reported the national rankings of the KU School of Law and MBA program have dropped significantly, along with rankings for some other KU departments and schools. This is sure to disturb alumni, students, parents of students, faculty and Kansas taxpayers.
KU officials were tipped off about the U.S. News report before it became public and scrambled to try to have comforting answers about the drops. For example, in an internal email, KU’s chief lobbyist noted, “It will be good to be prepared for those kinds of questions, as alumni look at these individual rankings to see the value of their degree.” She added to an associate, “You might look at each grad program to see how many dropped vs. increased in their stature on the rankings.”
Another KU employee emailed, “I don’t know the reason for the law school drop — they might not even know, as often the drops are attributable to U.S. News changing the methodology. But if there are questions, all I can answer is that it will be a key area of focus for the new dean we’re in the process of hiring.”
This brings up other concerns. KU has had a number of senior openings in recent years, and many question the manner in which search/recruitment committee members are selected, the depth and thoroughness of their efforts and the caliber of those selected to move into senior positions. Vacancies offer the best possible opportunity to upgrade — in any business, including education.
Many university observers question whether KU has taken advantage of these opportunities to bring in new people with new ideas rather than shifting and retreading internal candidates for new positions.
In regard to the KU School of Business, the magazine’s lower rating pinpoints the master’s in business administration program on KU’s Edwards Campus. Is the Kansas City operation separate and independent of the B-school on Mount Oread, or does the KU business dean call the shots?
Thanks to the courage of a handful of KU MBA students, wrongdoings on the Lawrence campus were exposed, leading to the dean’s decision to step aside. It’s disappointing that neither School of Business nor administration officials — or even the Kansas Board of Regents — would own up to the fact that there were serious mistakes. A slap on the wrist does not generate confidence among alumni, faculty and students who know firsthand of the abuses.
This situation probably encouraged the regents’ decision to initiate a “360” program in an effort to learn how alumni and leaders of the six state universities judge the effectiveness of their chancellor and presidents.
This survey is, or soon will be, under way for KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little with numerous faculty members wondering how many of their fellow teachers and researchers were sent questionnaires.
KU just hired a new vice chancellor for public affairs and lobbying. It is hoped this individual will have more success than two recent, highly able individuals who, for one reason or another, left similar assignments for major jobs outside higher education.
KU already has a well-paid lobbyist in Topeka, Kathy Damron, who represents a number of other companies or entities. Her official title is the university’s “director of state relations,” but the 2011 lobbyist directory published by the Kansas Secretary of State lists many other clients under her name: Apollo Group Inc. (University of Phoenix), the city of Topeka, Deffenbaugh industries, KU Endowment Association, Kansas City Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas District Judges Association, Prudential Financial Inc., Strategic Communications of Kansas, Unicare of Kansas, Waddell & Reed Financial Inc., KU and maybe others. Her husband also is a lobbyist with a long list of clients.
Just how many lobbyists does KU need with the new vice chancellor, along with Damron and a highly respected former aide to Sen. Pat Roberts, who is supposed to oversee Washington efforts? Is Damron spread too thin?
Whether it’s the drop in U.S. News ratings, the difficulty in filling important administrative and academic positions, failed search efforts, situations such as the business school mess, the long-delayed capital campaign, questions and frustration about leadership and vision, the need for knowledgeable, strong and respected appointments to the regents — these and other matters combine to dampen enthusiasm about KU. Enthusiasm and pride among KU alumni and friends, along with high faculty morale, used to be KU hallmarks.
Some kind of a spark or stimulus, something that generates respect and enthusiasm for the school is badly needed.
Thank goodness for the KU basketball team, a real winner. There are numerous ills and/or excesses related to intercollegiate sports, but the fact is a winning athletic team, under sound management, helps buoy the spirits of alumni, students and friends and generate positive national attention.
The Jayhawks’ drive toward a national basketball championship comes at a most opportune time.