Rankings seem to be extremely popular these days, whether they are trying to define the best cities in the United States, which cities are the “most livable,” which are best for retirees, which have the best bike paths or lowest crime rates, or which excel in many other categories.
The same interest in ratings or rankings applies to sports teams, hospitals, educational institutions, student enrollment numbers and on and on. There is no end of interest generated by how a particular program or institution ranks in the eyes of self-appointed critics.
There may be instances where there is an overemphasis on rankings, and there certainly are situations in which rankings are used or manipulated to try to inflate real excellence in a program or activity in order to gain public support or respect.
When a program, institution or any other entity is given high marks, it is only natural for those associated with the programs to point with pride to the favorable ranking and point out how a particular program or activity has improved or climbed relative to other similar programs. However, when a program drops or stays the same in rankings, individuals associated with the programs are quick to downplay their importance, claiming the rankings are merely a popularity contest that don’t reflect the true excellence of a program.
In too many cases, this had been the position of many Kansas University officials in past years. Some years ago, there was no question that KU was on the rise in numerous academic and research programs. It was looked upon as a rising star among the nation’s state-aided research universities. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, KU dropped in a number of categories, and KU alumni and friends were told not to worry, that rankings really didn’t matter that much.
Like it or not, rankings do matter, and it appears KU leaders, grudgingly or not, now acknowledge that fact as they talk about improving the university’s standing in most every category.
Positive rankings tend to energize and enthuse students, faculty, alumni and friends. They are of interest to financial contributors and parents of prospective students. They certainly play a role in how talented teachers and researchers being recruited by the university look upon the school, and state legislators are — or should be — acutely aware of legitimate rankings and how universities under the state’s umbrella are judged.
Gov. Sam Brownback has made it clear he wants to see higher rankings for the state’s universities. For example, he wants the KU School of Medicine to improve its ranking and points to the excellent rankings of KU Hospital to show what can be accomplished with committed, visionary and enthusiastic leadership, excellent staff and high morale among employees.
Leadership, in any organization, plays a critical role, and nowhere is it more important than at a university. Deans or department chairs set the stage and can create an environment that will enthuse and inspire — or leave that school with far too much infighting and poor morale.
The KU School of Business offers a good example. Regardless of who was at fault, morale within the school has not been good. Policies or activities were allowed or tolerated that were not correct, such as the distribution of differential tuition funds, the loss of important programs and other problems.
Whether the dean alone should be held responsible for this situation is up for debate, but he resigned or was asked to step aside. The new dean, Neeli Bendapudi, is a breath of fresh air. Changes already have been made, and more are sure to come. She has been on the road, meeting and visiting with KU alumni and is receiving high marks from those she has met. Her enthusiasm, positive thinking and vision for the future of the school is infectious.
There’s no question that within a reasonably short time, the national ranking of the KU School of Business will start to climb.
Once again, look at what happened at KU Hospital. Fifteen or 20 years ago, it was at the bottom of national rankings for teaching hospitals. Now it is in the top five nationally and ranked as the best hospital in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Visionary leadership at the hospital has led and inspired a commitment to excellence. That’s the difference between KU Hospital and the medical center.
Hopefully, the leadership of the overall university will be such that the school’s national ranking will start to climb. There are many truly outstanding programs, such as pharmacy, pharmaceutical chemistry, special education, public administration, geology, the Spencer Museum of Art, the Biodiversity Institute and others, but even the university’s loyal supporters will acknowledge their university could and should work to achieve higher national rankings.
One ingredient in achieving this goal might be to add some innovation, again a role of those in positions of leadership.
Thomas Hoenig, 65, retired this week as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. He has gained much national recognition for his outspoken thoughts about the Federal Reserve’s position on money matters, and he is considered a powerful and knowledgeable authority on money, economics and business.
Why not try to encourage Hoenig to become a lecturer or play some other role for KU? Perhaps he could be based at KU’s Edwards Campus in Johnson County and linked by video to other state universities so students and faculty throughout the state would have the opportunity to learn from him.
It is reported Missouri officials are considering offering Hoenig a job as president of the University of Missouri system. Couldn’t KU offer a more exciting opportunity and, in so doing, send a signal that KU intends to move ahead in many ways to energize its effort to achieve excellence?
Leadership, vision, commitment and rankings are all intertwined. According to early reports, Dean Bendapudi is setting a good example in those areas that will affect the entire university in a number of ways.
The potential for true excellence on Mount Oread, at the medical school and at the Edwards Campus is abundant.
Someone needs to light the fire.