This week’s announcement by Dr. Barbara Atkinson that she would resign her dual positions as Kansas University executive vice chancellor and dean of the KU School of Medicine is good news.
Atkinson joined the School of Medicine in 2000, was named executive dean in 2002 and became executive vice chancellor in 2005. Many positives have taken place at the medical school while Atkinson served in leadership positions, such as the massive effort to gain the highly prized National Cancer Center designation.
However, negatives and a lack of leadership skills overshadowed the accomplishments, and either Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little or the Kansas Board of Regents decided it was time to make changes.
Atkinson is to be congratulated for moving the date of her resignations up by 18 months. It’s good in that replacements for these two important positions will be hired much quicker, good in that the poor, illogical and harmful manner in which these positions were to be filled may be reversed, and good in that the morale among KU medical school staff members is sure to improve.
Another extremely good result of her decision to step aside is that chances appear far better to develop a rewarding relationship with neighboring and nationally ranked KU Hospital.
KU Hospital is among the nation’s best teaching hospitals, and there are plans to make it an even more comprehensive and outstanding operation. Under Atkinson’s leadership of the KU School of Medicine, the relationship with KU Hospital left much to be desired. A new executive vice chancellor and dean are likely to bring about major changes that allow the school and hospital to combine forces and assets and become a health and research center that will attract national and international attention.
New leadership, vision and enthusiasm, a focus and appreciation of excellence and leadership that merits and generates the respect of the faculty all combine to set the stage for almost unlimited growth that feeds off the strengths of both entities to become a medical care-research powerhouse.
For one reason or another, Atkinson was unable to enthuse and/or inspire her associates. Morale was poor, and her dual roles were a problem. The staff’s long-delayed evaluation of Atkinson is reported to have been “shockingly bad,” and the sequence she and Gray-Little set for filling the two vacancies disappointed and angered the faculty.
For some unexplained reason, Gray-Little and Atkinson decided to fill the dean’s position before the vice chancellorship, thereby not allowing the vice chancellor any voice in the selection of the dean. This same, difficult-to-understand reasoning was used at KU when deans were selected before a new provost was hired. This is wrong, as the deans work at the pleasure of the provost.
It is reported that members of the medical school search committee, particularly the “outside” members, made their concerns known and said it was making the search/selection effort more difficult.
Another factor coloring Atkinson’s position with her faculty, and with those at KU Hospital, is that she, along with some in Strong Hall and some Kansas City business leaders, favored a plan that would have weakened both the medical school and the hospital in order to strengthen Kansas City’s St. Luke’s Hospital. Fortunately, this effort died, but there still are some who hold out hope for such a plan.
Now the task is to find a truly outstanding executive vice chancellor and dean. Gray-Little is reported to favor maintaining two separate positions.
Those on the selection committee have a rare opportunity to find and select two truly outstanding individuals to move into these positions. They must set their sights high!
Unfortunately, some recent selection efforts at KU have produced mixed results. The KU medical school is too important not to seek the best.
Medical school staff members are enthused about the selection of Dr. Steven Stites to serve as acting vice chancellor and dean. He is chairman of the internal medicine department, and fellow staff members describe him as “top-flight,” a “very safe pick,” an individual who “has the confidence of his associates and apparently the confidence of the chancellor,” an “excellent selection” and an “overall very nice person.”
Stites has said he is not a candidate to fill either job permanently. His associates stress that a lot is being asked of Stites in holding down three important positions and that he deserves a strong team to handle the transition from Atkinson to two new executive officers.
Staff members also emphasize the medical school needs to operate with far more transparency and that some of Atkinson’s policies need to be altered for the good of the school.
Another “good” that could, or should, result from Atkinson’s resignation is that the governor, state lawmakers and the public have evidence of how out of touch or uninformed those serving on the Board of Regents are about the universities they are supposed to oversee and coordinate.
They did not know about the “Atkinson situation,” the “Hemenway situation,” the “Perkins situation” or the “KU School of Business situation.” If they say they knew about these situations, they are acknowledging that they didn’t have the courage and backbone to make the proper decisions. If there are “situations” at KU that need prompt, forceful action, how many “situations” are there at the other schools they are supposed to oversee and coordinate? The state and its taxpayers deserve better performance by the regents.
Fortunately, good days are ahead for the KU medical school with Stites moving into his added leadership roles. The importance of the search committee cannot be overstated. Vacancies for jobs such as the executive vice chancellor and dean do not open up that often, and when they do, members of the selection committee are holding the growth, future and excellence of the school in their hands.
This is contrary to what apparently has happened in some past searches at KU, where members have tried but were unable to find, recruit and assemble a glittering pool of candidates and have gone ahead and recommended one or more candidates from a lesser pool to fill a top position.
Far better to acknowledge no one measured up and start a new search than to make a mistake.
Those on the medical school search committee cannot accept second best for these two positions.