These are stressful and delicate times at the Kansas University Medical Center. The general public might think this refers to the center’s application for the highly prized certification as a National Cancer Institute cancer center, and this indeed is a tremendously important effort. According to knowledgeable observers, there probably won’t be any answer on the application before September, and all those supporting the effort should realize competition is intense, applicants often have to make more than one application before being accepted, and current national economic conditions present added hurdles for first-time applicants.
The stressful and delicate situation mentioned above, however, is the result of a combination of actions or nonactions that now have forced KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little to have discussions about organizational changes at the center with Barbara Atkinson, KU executive vice chancellor and executive dean of the School of Medicine. This is long overdue!
Earlier this week, Gray-Little sent an email to KUMC faculty members thanking them for participating in the recent performance review questionnaire on Atkinson and thanking committee members for their help on this effort. She also said she and Dr. Atkinson were discussing organizational changes.
The questionnaires went out in mid-July, and, according to various medical school sources, this was the first time Atkinson has undergone a review, contrary to school policies that call for periodic reviews of all deans and department chairs. Atkinson has been at the school since 2000 and was named executive dean in 2002 and executive vice chancellor in 2005.
There has been considerable discussion and concern by many at the medical school and others interested in the university about whether and when the results of Atkinson’s evaluation would be made public and what the chancellor would do with what she learned from the survey. Would the Kansas Board of Regents be told, or would this be a private matter between the chancellor and Atkinson? What kind of grade did Atkinson receive from her associates at the medical center?
Over the past several weeks, there have been “leaks” about the evaluation and much speculation about where the leaks are coming from. Surprisingly, it is believed the leaks are coming from the dean’s office, not from faculty members, not from the committee handling the evaluation and not from Gray-Little’s office.
It is understood the survey/evaluation was “shockingly bad.” It also is understood Atkinson intends to fight and defend her leadership skills. Her critics claim her history at KUMC has been to fight and deny any wrongdoing.
It is unfortunate the situation has reached this point when it could have been resolved months or years ago if responsible officials and parties had measured up to their responsibilities and not tried to cover up rather than come clean with the public.
Many share the blame for allowing this messy and ugly situation to reach this point. They could have blown the whistle or used some leadership to correct and resolve the problem.
One factor has played a significant role in causing various individuals to try to hush discussion of the Atkinson situation. This is the school’s massive effort to receive NCI certification. Officials thought anything bad or critical of Atkinson would handicap the medical center’s application, although various cancer officials have told this writer the excellence of the school’s research efforts and scope of its cancer care and research are the principal factors, not how the dean is performing.
As noted above, the NCI application has been sent to the proper office and, because of Gray-Little’s email to medical school personnel, the question of what kind of job Atkinson is doing is now out in the public. This is a top priority for the chancellor.
Who allowed the matter to reach this point? There are many who could have put this matter to rest.
Former KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway, who did such a good job in calling for a separation of the KU Hospital from state control, did not clamp down or demand better leadership from Atkinson. In fact, he increased the problem and unrest within the KUMC family by joining Atkinson and others in Kansas City and Topeka in supporting an effort to weaken the medical center and KU Hospital in order to strengthen Kansas City’s St. Luke’s Hospital. Fortunately, this effort was defeated.
Unfortunately, however, Hemenway lost control of the medical school by not reining in Atkinson.
Next comes Gray-Little. She is the one who finally blew the whistle, but this didn’t come about until a delegation of distinguished medical school faculty members called on the chancellor to tell her about problems with the school and actions and policies of Atkinson. Then, this past April, Atkinson fired a distinguished faculty member, Dr. Curtis Klaassen, chairman of the department of pharmacology, toxicology and therapeutics, for highly questionable and suspect reasons. At that time, the question was raised of whether Atkinson had undergone a peer review as called for in the school’s management policies. She hadn’t, and, in July, Gray-Little called for such a review, assuring all those who were asked to participate that they would remain totally anonymous.
As noted above, the findings of the survey are reported to be “shockingly bad.” It also is reported that Gray-Little may have shown Atkinson one or more signed letters written by individuals critical of the dean and executive vice chancellor.
Atkinson, by the way, is the highest paid state employee with a salary of $543,614, plus earnings from several KU medical school departments that may bring her compensation close to $1 million.
Now the matter is in the chancellor’s hands, and how she resolves the ticklish situation will say a great deal, good or bad, about the chancellor, who also has a good share of critics.
Surely, Hemenway and Gray-Little played central roles in the KU medical school drama, but recent members of the Board of Regents also were just as guilty, perhaps more so.
Some or all of the regents should have been aware of the growing troubles at the medical center. If they were, they should have taken action to correct the situation. If they knew and didn’t act, they were negligent in not carrying out their responsibilities.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a new situation. The same thing happened in the closing days of Chancellor Hemenway’s tenure. The regents knew Hemenway was facing tough personal challenges, but they did nothing and left him twisting in the wind. He deserved far better from the regents, as did the university and the state.
Time and time again, whether it concerned the unfortunate KU School of Business leadership question, the Lew Perkins era or other matters, recent regents either have not been informed and did not know what was going on at the campuses they were supposed to oversee — or, more likely, did know but didn’t want to get involved.
The way the system is set up today, there is no way for the Board of Regents to keep track of problems on the campuses of the six state universities, the KU medical school, and the state’s community colleges and vocational-technical schools.
There needs to be some kind of advisory group for each school that would report to the regents and keep them informed about what is going on. In far too many cases, regents have been flying blind or don’t what to know about and confront tough situations.
Faculty members at the medical school have tried to maintain the proper degree of confidentiality about internal matters at the school, but, at the same time, they realize the school is being handcuffed by its present leadership. Gov. Sam Brownback has made it clear he wants to see the school improve its national rankings, and he has sent this message to members of the current Board of Regents.
Unfortunately, there is a desperate need for leadership at KU. There is a sense the university is adrift and rudderless. The school’s potential is almost unlimited, but recent situations, including those at the KU’s business school, medical school and athletic department, the lack of enlightened oversight by the regents, problems at Strong Hall, all contribute to the unrest, frustration and concern among growing numbers of KU alumni and friends.
Hopefully, the KU Medical Center situation will mark a turning point in getting the KU Express, and all of its schools and departments, back on track.