Archive for Saturday, March 19, 2011

KU needs something to spark enthusiasm

March 19, 2011


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.


Les Blevins 7 years, 1 month ago

Mr. Simons Jr. is correct; Kansas University does indeed need something to spark enthusiasm and help lift KU back to a position of national importance.

There is no doubt that KU has enjoyed a proud history, and there’s no reason it should not begin to regain this record of excellence and achievement. However, during the past 20+ years the lack of a clear vision of its rightful role in the world has robbed KU of its pride and put it into stagnation.

There have been areas of true excellence at the university during this period. There are still faculty members who are well looked upon in their respective fields. However it now seems the KU Alumni Association no longer does an excellent job of energizing the alumni scattered throughout the nation and around the world in shaping KU policy. Instead the KU alumni are robbing KU of its former vision and influencing KU’s internal policy and turning KU away from the new path to relevance in the 21st Century KU needs. The primary technological area this nation needs to see progress in is advanced energy delivery systems that can wean this nation off fossil fuels with cleaner and more sustainable energy.

Without a viable answer to the nation’s energy and environmental dilemma; the entire nation lacks a clear vision of its proper role in the world and this robs it of its pride and puts it into stagnation while KU’s alumni keeps the long term bondage of fossil fuels tying KU’s hands.

I know this to be a fact as I took a viable proposal to KU’s Engineering Department and offered it as a R&D project,, and the head of this department was enthused about my proposal until my proposal ran headlong into a brick wall in the research provost’s office - and that brick wall has been erected there by KU alumni now employed by fossil fuel firms who are not only binding KU and holding KU back but also keeping this nation from its rightful place in the world.

Les Blevins President Advanced Alternative Energy Corp.

KU_cynic 7 years, 1 month ago

Mr. Blevins:

With all due respect, you are an ambitious and articulate dreamer, and I wish you well in your goals for your small company (readers: see information at:, and google map the company's address for a streetside photo). I encourage you to inquire to KU for technical and business assistance. Good ideas eventually survive setbacks and scrutiny.

It also seems likely to me that energy -- indeed perhaps the broader theme of human interaction with and impact on the environment -- will emerge as a major theme in KU's current strategic planning process.

That said, the alternative energy industry as a whole has become a morass of subsidies and special privileges supporting activities of dubious economic merit. Exhibit A would be the ethanol boondoggle. Exhibit B would be the nascent wind industry. Exhibit C would be government subsidies for electric cars. To the extent that fossil fuel firms also enjoy subsidies I am for ending them, not doubling down on the meddling by sending even more subsidies to alternative energy in a misguided effort to level the playing field.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 1 month ago

KU_cynic, the third paragraph of your comment is right on.

Kookamooka 7 years, 1 month ago

Developers took the students off campus. Back when I was in school, you lived on campus and the Union was a hot stop for activity. Developers have turned KU into a shopping mall now. I remember when students picnicked on the hill overlooking the stadium, or ice skated on potters lake. I remember a much more lively student population with hijinx and humor. I remember when you could buy beer at the Union. (and drink at 18)

Does anybody else remember the Sunday brunch at the Union, way before they remodeled it, when faculty would bring their families and mix with the students in a friendly, collegial way? It was like a big family back then. I babysat my professors kids. The only word I can use to describe KU's social scene is STERILE. (Some young students-please correct me if I'm wrong.)

xclusive85 7 years, 1 month ago

Absolutely correct.

The Sunday brunch idea would be awesome. It is so hard to get to know your professors on a personal basis and that would add an opportunity.

Kookamooka 7 years, 1 month ago

I think about Dr. James Seaver (RIP) and about what a scholarly life was like "in the day". It was full of privilege and honor. Maybe the lack of a traditional scholarly scene and formal faculty club, is what is keeping KU from attracting the best and the brightest. Working at KU is just...working at KU.

windex 7 years, 1 month ago

I have an idea. Let's publicly vilify the KU faculty and staff for the crime of being overpaid public employees, provide a shrinking and unpredictable budget, neglect and/or propose to dismantle KPERS, and then complain about how KU just doesn't seem to have that "spark".

Basketball is what we honor, respect and support.

jpgs 7 years, 1 month ago

I don't know what you did, but you seem to not understand how university research works. There is no "Engineering Department" at KU; it is a school consisting of a number of departments, which consist of faculty members. KU gets money from research grants; KUCR helps facilitate individual faculty in this process, and Alumni has nothing to do with it. You would have to get a faculty member interested in your idea, and either get them to submit a proposal to a government funding agency (like DOE) or be the lead on an SBIR proposal with a faculty member participating. Perhaps you need to understand the process before you complain about it. I felt the need to reply to this so that readers would understand that the idea of KU alumni having any control over individual KU research agenda is preposterous. Of course influential alumni that work for corporations might help steer research funding to KU, but not prevent funding from being obtained from other sources.

Bob_Keeshan 7 years, 1 month ago

How about another blathering bit of negativity from the local newspaper owner?

Yeah, that oughta do it.

Nevertheless 7 years, 1 month ago

Hey Captain, how about burying your head in the sand? Yeah, that oughta do it.

Phillbert 7 years, 1 month ago

The law school drop was perfectly explainable. In fact, it was explained in this very newspaper not more than a few days ago.

Of course Dolph ignores this, just like he ignores the KU programs that rose in the rankings (though the reporter buried that in his story too.)

For a declining newspaper that would by this point be a weekly shopper without KU to cover (and advertise), Dolph sure seems obsessed with tearing it down.

Bob_Keeshan 7 years, 1 month ago

KU law’s reputation score went up, for example. It also ranked among the top 25 public schools in a new listing the magazine created called “When Lawyers Do the Hiring.”

I have no enthusiasm about that. Ho-hum.

"KU retained its strong position in special education and city management and urban policy, which both ranked No. 1 among public institutions."


"At KU Medical Center, the medicine-primary care increased to 30th among publics and nursing moved up to 24th among public schools."

So some things went up, big deal. What is more important is things that went down! Where is the enthusiasm? Only more negativity will make people more enthusiastic.

Dan Thalmann 7 years, 1 month ago

Declining newspaper? I'd suggest the Lawrence Journal-World is in the top 3 in the state as one of the best, most progressive newspapers. The World Company is highly respected nationally in its field.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 1 month ago

Mr. Simons if half correct. Like all public educational institutions, KU has faced a barrage of anti-intellectual right wing populist attacks, questioning the very existence of public research institutions, the use of tax dollars to subsidize the costs of education, and the perceived lavish lives lived by university employees (the "elite" argument).

Research has become so politicized that it is difficult to not find a research topic that is not politically charged. So, KU is perceived as an elitist institution trying to impose a particular political agenda on the citizens of Kansas, both from the right and left. This is nonsense.

Where KU has failed is in its response to these challenges. In the past, KU administrators have gone into seige mentality, damage control, and keeping a low profile in response to these attacks. KU should have assumed a strong posture, hit these ridiculous assertions head on, argued its strengths, and demonstrated how it was getting better (e.g. by making all KU faculty and administrators accountable for their contributions).

I think the last several years have seen a change. The new administrators are being more proactive. I hope it is not too late.

LJD230 7 years, 1 month ago

The problem with KU is this: it is located in Kansas!

Miles Nease 7 years, 1 month ago

The problem with KU is that it has ridiculously low admission standards for an AAU university. This is not rocket science. Raise admission standards and our retention and graduation rates will also rise. These are two components that greatly impact national rankings, along with ACT and SAT scores. Our reputation score is already above most of the schools that rank ahead of us in US News. New admission requirements for KU were proposed last April, but BGL does not seem to have the desire to get them implemented.

geekin_topekan 7 years, 1 month ago

"Some kind of a spark or stimulus, something that generates respect and enthusiasm for the school is badly needed." +++ Wha !!???

I thought that behemoth that looks like an abandoned coal fired plant was evidence that KU was growing along national ranks. Wasn't that half of the justification for leveling the iconic corner and the citizens of Lawrence financing the damned thing?

Paul R Getto 7 years, 1 month ago

"t’s a good, state-aided university," ==== Key point here, Mr. Simons. Money isn't everything, and there are non-tax sources to tap, but for a generation or more the university systems have been underfunded, even by more benign administrations than the current one. Muscular Sam and his minions are anti-education, and will work hard to defund all levels of education in the coming years, pre-K through university level. They have given hints already and taken preliminary actions to pursue their course. Watch out, Kochkansas.........they are coming to get you.

Dan Thalmann 7 years, 1 month ago

Put a story about KU basketball game winning a tourney game next to a story about the city management program being #1 and I bet you the readers choose to read the bball story on a 100-1 ratio. A newspaper is a business and has to give readers what they want. If a newspaper purely focused on what would be good medicine for readers, they'd be out of business. Fortunately the bball stories essentially subsidize the other offerings the newspaper contains.

Dan Thalmann 7 years, 1 month ago

How much of the university's progress and effort fall son Bernadette Gray-Little? I've been less than impressed by her efforts, in fact, she's basically invisible on the state scene in my opinion.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 1 month ago

The best thing KU could do to spark enthusiasm is to reinvigorate the faculty. This starts by setting standards and expectations of performance high, and cutting loose those who consistently fall below those standards.

For too long, too many KU faculty and administrators have been allowed to coast and to not push the envelope. The resulting mediocrity is pervasive and spreads like a virus. It encourages those with mediocre tendencies to indulge in them, and it drives away those who want true excellence and achievement.

This is the root of the problem at KU.

PugnaciousJayhawk 7 years, 1 month ago

Looks like KU needs to seriously reevaluate its lobbying efforts and/or have a Chancellor that can work the political rope line themselves.

beeshlii 7 years, 1 month ago

too many KU students, faculty Alumni, Regents shacking up with Haskell

equalaccessprivacy 7 years, 1 month ago

KU needs to solve to solve their stomach-turning conflict-of-interest and southern- justice politics before positive change will ever happen. Everyone knows the problem is corruption. Smoke them critters out of HR.

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