Years ago a popular Kansas University chancellor told this writer, “Being a chancellor at KU could be an enjoyable experience if it were not for problems at the medical school, the athletic department/football coaches and the journalism school.”
That was years ago and today KU Chancellor Gray-Little faces two-thirds of the same troubles which have plagued chancellor after chancellor. There are serious problems at the university’s medical school and continuing problems within the athletics department. Right now, at least publicly, there don’t appear to be any serious problems relative to the journalism school.
The basic problem at the medical school seems to center on poor leadership.
A recent evaluation of Barbara Atkinson, the school’s dean, who also carries the title of executive vice chancellor, was not good. In fact, it was described as being “shockingly bad.” It is a bad situation and it is up to Gray-Little to correct.
This past week another incident at the school offers evidence of how Atkinson deals with those on her staff, particularly those with different ideas.
Some months ago Atkinson fired Dr. Curtis Klaassen as dean of the Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutics. He is one of seven Distinguished Professors at the school; he has brought numerous million-dollar grants to the school; and he has a national and international reputation in his field of study.
He has an intense loyalty to the school and is passionate about his department. He is not afraid to speak up and voice his concerns. Atkinson’s reputation among many at the school is that she rules by intimidation and that any differences of opinion are “settled ‘her way’ with those with differing opinions told to ‘take the highway.’” This is what happened to Dr. Klaassen this past summer.
Earlier this week Dr. Klaassen was working in his office and visiting with an official from the National Institutes of Health. Without any prior announcement, two armed police officers entered Dr. Klaassen’s office, accompanied by one or two other medical school people, and told Dr. Klaassen he was to leave immediately. They took him out of his office, took his identification or badge that allowed him to enter the building, took away his access to his KUMC email account and told him he was not to set foot on the campus for a month.
He was told the reason for this action was that he speaks too loudly, which frightens and upsets others, and that there are questions about whether he has misspent some of the NIH grant money.
Dr. Klaassen may be a demanding scientist, teacher and researcher, but he is fiercely loyal to those with whom he works and to the school as a whole.
Since his eviction, he now is unable to work with his students, even though he has students coming from Japan and he is leaving next week to deliver a lecture or perhaps several lectures in China. He says he receives up to 200 emails a day, many of which may be of great importance to the school, and now those trying to communicate with him have no idea about what is going on and how this might affect the school.
Unless there are some extreme situations, wouldn’t it have been better to let Dr. Klaassen know that Atkinson intended to ask him to leave his office and that he should not come to work rather than to have two armed police officers handle the matter in the way they did, marching him out and to his car in front of the NIH official, his students and other faculty members?
Faculty members were shocked but tell this writer this is the way Atkinson operates and why there is such confusion, poor morale and lack of respect for Atkinson within the school.
Friday afternoon KU medical school people told this writer the situation at the school could be likened to the famed “OK Corral shootout,” which was reported to have lasted four minutes. But, according to these medical school observers, what is going on in Kansas City at the school has lasted four years, not four minutes, with many fatalities and lasting injuries.
Many medical school staffers said Atkinson has humiliated and is trying to destroy Dr. Klaassen by the way he was marched through the building. They say they are “scared” to talk to Klaassen for fear Atkinson will learn about it and retaliate in some harmful manner. “She is trying to destroy him,” one staffer said. “It is a campus full of fear,” the staffer continued.
Klaassen, by the way, is the sixth-highest cited pharmacologist in the world (that is how often their research is cited by other scientists); he is the sixth-highest NIH-funded pharmacologist/toxicologist last year from NIH; since he was fired in March, he obtained a $10 million grant from NIH.
Atkinson’s critics suggest she is eager to terminate Klaassen and take his grants for other uses.
Gray-Little has a serious problem, and how she handles it will say a lot.
In regard to the athletics department, Gray-Little inherited a tough and ugly situation with former Athletics Director Lew Perkins. Perkins had done away with the athletics board and replaced it with a group he thought he could control. He hired Turner Gill as his football coach at a salary that shocked individuals who know about college football compensation packages.
So far, Gill has failed to deliver on the grand projections of Perkins. In fact, up until today’s game the program appears to have regressed under Gill’s leadership.
Alumni and friends of the university are becoming louder in their criticism of the football program. Many of the critics are generous contributors to various university programs in addition to their fiscal help for the athletics department. This is not a good situation with a long-delayed capital campaign due to get a public launch next spring.
Perkins’ replacement, Sheahon Zenger, is in a tough spot. Unless Gill turns the program around there will be intense pressure to terminate Gill’s contract.
Some wonder, however, if Gray-Little will allow Zenger to take such action, whether she has told Zenger she will not sign off on such an action and that he will have to go to the Regents if he should decide to replace Gill.
It’s a bad and unfortunate situation but for whatever reason, athletics and the football coaching matter continue to be major issues for KU chancellors.
As has been mentioned in a previous column, how Gray-Little handles the medical school/Atkinson matter and the football coaching headache will say a great deal about the chancellor.
Again, what is Gray-Little going to do? Will the Regents enter the picture? Who will be coaching the KU football team next fall? Is anyone going to step up and take control, show leadership and regain the excitement, excellence and enthusiasm that used to be the hallmark of Kansas University?