There are many definitions of a university, but this writer believes the purpose or mission of a major research university is to provide an educational environment of excellence that will challenge and stimulate students and faculty to maximize their potential.
Kansas University is a fine research university, perhaps not as well-ranked today as in past years, but it is good — with the opportunity and potential to become a genuine top-flight, state-aided institution.
Academic excellence is the essential hallmark of a superior university, and this requires excellent faculty, visionary leadership, excellent and highly motivated students, strong fiscal support, a superior library system (although traditional libraries are changing) and a large number of loyal, generous and committed alumni and friends.
This alumni support is generated and sustained by many means, certainly by the excellence of the institution and the pride graduates have for their alma mater.
Another means of developing and generating support for an institution is through the school’s athletic program. Granted, there has been far too much emphasis on sports at too many schools, with excessive spending, scandals in the classrooms and poor personal behavior by many players and coaches.
Nevertheless, a strong, honest, broad intercollegiate sports program is a very important, perhaps supplementary, facet that can play an important role in developing pride and interest in a school.
This is why the current turmoil in conference realignments in intercollegiate sports is troubling. Years ago, conferences were groupings designed or put together among schools within a geographic area — i.e., Pacific Coast, Southwest, Atlantic Coast, Southeast, Ivy League — and others, including the Big 10 and the original Big 6 (now the Big 12) in the Midwest.
Television and money then entered the picture, and athletic conferences have expanded, changed members or even disappeared. It’s a different ballgame today. Geography and historical ties mean little.
Right now, the Big 12 Conference is bleeding. It lost two schools last year, another has announced plans to leave, and others are signaling they may abandon the conference.
Alumni of the schools are deeply concerned, state legislatures are getting involved, regents or curators of the schools are getting into the picture, and millions and billions of dollars are involved.
Currently, according to various reports, KU along with Kansas State, Iowa State and maybe Missouri are on the outside looking in. It’s not a comfortable position, and many KU alumni are concerned, disappointed and growing more angry at the apparent lack of any sense of urgency or concern by KU’s chancellor or athletic director.
One deeply interested, involved and highly regarded KU fan told this writer he is “worried sick about the situation” and that it “breaks my heart.” He claims the “image of the university is being eroded” and asked how much longer the university can sustain itself among alumni in cities such as Kansas City, Wichita, St. Louis, Omaha, Des Moines and Tulsa.
The problem is that KU officials do not seem to be actively engaged — at least publicly — in preserving or strengthening the league. At other Big 12 schools, the chancellors, presidents and athletic directors are out front in their analysis of the situation and what they think is best for their schools. They are proactive, while KU officials seem to be reactive, offering few public comments about what they want or think is best for their school and the conference. There’s little enthusiasm or suggestion of risk-taking. Do some at KU think there is something wrong about reaching out to be better?
Other schools are initiating action, and there are several upcoming changes that will grab headlines on the nation’s sports pages. KU seems merely to sit by and accept the actions of others.
How much of a role are college presidents playing in this game of conference musical chairs? Are too many chancellors more concerned about playing it safe, more worried about how many more years they must keep from angering regents, curators and influential alumni in order to reach a comfortable retirement plan?
In recent years, it appears sports is the tail that wags the college dog. It certainly appears that conference realignment is coming and the actions and reactions are not over yet.
KU will have to live with the results, but the school’s friends and alumni want to believe that KU’s leaders are doing their utmost to make sure KU will be a strong member of a strong conference when all is said and done.