Archive for Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dynamic leadership can help KU boost national rankings

October 1, 2011


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.


yourworstnightmare 6 years, 6 months ago

Good column, Mr. Simons.

Indeed, strong leadership is important but is half of the equation. Resources are also important.

Many resources have recently flooded KUMC in the form of the Cancer Center, which has improved the hospital's rankings. The same is true with Pharmacy and Engineering.

While I applaud the the governor for calling for improvement, he needs to commit more resources to KU to make this happen.

Even the best leaders will fail if they are not given the resources to improve. Without these resources, there is actually very little any strong leader can accomplish.

Follow the money at KU, Mr. Simons, and you will find these pockets of excellence. It can work in other units as well.

voevoda 6 years, 6 months ago

There are many areas of excellence at KU, beyond those you named. In fact, the institution as a whole is of considerably better quality than the rankings would suggest. Most of the higher-ranking institutions have in common some traits that KU is not likely to have, at least for the foreseeable future: 1) consistently higher levels of funding for research, faculty salaries, and graduate students; 2) high admission standards at both the undergraduate and graduate levels; 3) substantial leave time for faculty to conduct research; 4) state governments that promote and fund public education at all levels; 5) state government officials who desist from voicing anti-intellectual and anti-science opinions and espousing crackpot positions.
Too often "leadership" in the academic setting consists of creating grandiose "plans" and "initiatives" that consist of nothing but inflated language and new bureaucratic devices. We have more than enough of that already at KU.

JayHawke 6 years, 6 months ago

What Mr. Simons will not acknowledge in his many columns extolling the KU Hospital is the fact that its success is derived directly from the doctors who practice medicine there, not from the buildings and facilities, and certainly not from the administrators of the KU Hospital, few if any of whom are doctors. And who are the doctors that make the KU Hospital successful? They are faculty members of the KU School of Medicine--not employees of the KU Hospital. In fact, about 90 percent ot the doctors at the KU Hospital are employed by KU, not by the KU Hospital. People go to the KU Hospital for advanced health care because of these doctors, not because the administrators at the hospital are able to turn a profit. So while Mr. Simons can talk all he wishes about the "visionary leadership at the hospital," the truth of the matter is that the KU Hospital's success is based on the faculty of the School of Medicine, who are first rate researchers, educators, and clinicians. Certainly Bob Page and before him Irene Cumming were excellent bean counters who achieved efficiency when given freedom from state procurement requirements and state civil service laws. But, the real success in the practice of medicine, treatment of patients, and high rankings for that hospital is derived directly and unquestionably from the medical school faculty at the School of Medicine, many of whom were recruited by the Dean and EVC, Barbara Atkinson. So, Mr. Simons, for a change, let's give credit where it is really due--to the University of Kansas, its leadership, and its faculty in the School of Medicine.

thinkks 6 years, 6 months ago

JayHawke shows clearly why KUMC has not moved forward. Yes, the physicians are vital in improving the quality of the hospital. But, in this case, the physicians bought in to the change of culture in the hospital that impacts nurses, administrators, cleaning people and the entire operation. It was the culture change in creating accountability for quality in the hospital that sparked the change. Overcoming barriers created by KUMC traditional administrative organization was another important step. The hospital's primary function to to deliver the highest quality patient care to each patient...and they put their money and their accountability to that end. This dismissal of the prime importance of nursing in the hospital rankings by JayHawke is offensive as well as reflective of a 1950's mindset. The hospital, not KUMC, created partnerships between nurses, physicians and the hospital to improve care. I don't know what kind of leader Barbara Atkinson is, but I know the hospital has succeeded in spite of KUMC antiquated mindset that JayHawke represents.

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