Archive for Saturday, October 6, 2012

Simons’ Saturday Column: State must demand change to upgrade universities

October 6, 2012


It was good to learn Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback believes rankings count, as in rankings for academic and research excellence at major colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, too many at Kansas University and even some members of the Kansas Board of Regents apparently do not think rankings are that important.

A couple of weeks ago, Brownback and his economic advisers gathered in Manhattan to brainstorm about how to raise the national rankings of the state’s universities.

Brownback said, “This is a big deal.” He added that increasing the stature of the universities will require reallocation of resources at the universities, and investments from the state.

It would be nice if that’s all it would take. However, there needs to be a change in attitudes, manner and vision of those charged with leading the universities. “Resources” alone are not the answer.

Some way or another, there needs to be a sea change in attitudes. Making changes and reallocating resources will help, but the biggest and most important change is getting the leaders of the schools, the regents, to shift gears, get excited, realize the necessity of either getting better or falling behind, and to have the courage to make necessary changes.

It is discouraging and disappointing to hear regents try to pooh-pooh rankings. One said he thought the recent U.S. News & World Report magazines’ rankings were a “hoax.” At the Manhattan meeting, higher education officials said that although the rankings are important, they’re not all that important.

“You don’t start with U.S. News & World Report,” said Fred Logan, vice chairman of the regents, adding that rankings cannot be ignored. He said KU and Kansas State officials told the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors that they had “long-term plans” to increase rankings.

How long are these long-term plans, and how long are the regents prepared to allow rankings and excellence to slip and stall before they believe it is critical to move into high gear to bring about some more immediate improvements?

The competition that KU and K-State face is not resting or relying on “long-term” solutions to stay ahead of our state’s universities.

Those at the Manhattan meetings said all the things that one would suggest they say. KU leaders have a plan called “Bold Aspirations” that is designed to raise graduation and retention rates, while KSU has a plan called “K-State 2025” that seeks to place the university in the top 50 of public universities by 2025.

This prompts this writer to recall former KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway talking about getting KU into the top 25 of public universities within a short time and then moving into the top 25 of all public and private universities. For one reason or another, or with one excuse or another, KU instead has dropped in the rankings rather than advancing. What happened?

It’s also interesting that only a relatively short time ago at the Manhattan meeting, KSU officials talked about the “K-State 2025” plan. Only a week or so later they announced they were changing the name by which they refer to the school to Kansas State University and using “K-State” primarily for athletic events. Kansas State University sounded, they said, more scholarly.

Brownback suggested putting together a summit on higher education to look “at where we are and where we are going” and to “include all sectors of Kansas” at the meeting.

This sounds good, but the critical factor will be who will be invited to the summit and what influence those people will have to bring about the necessary changes. As one knowledgeable observer noted, “It is interesting to see how many who have been critical, or questioning of the current academic situation at KU, and possibly KSU, seem to drink the Kool-Aid that tempers their criticism and desire to make changes. They suddenly become defensive of the status quo.”

What is needed is a better-informed, more courageous board of regents. They are the individuals who can call for changes but they must have the knowledge of what is going on, who is not measuring up and then have the backbone and toughness to cut loose those who need to be replaced. Such action is sure to get favorable attention of legislators, taxpayers, parents of students, faculty members and some administrators.

Summits are fine. “Long-term plans to increase rankings,” and a plan for 2025 all are laudable, but, really, all it takes is for the nine-member Board of Regents to make it clear to those in positions of leadership at KU, KSU and the other regent schools that changes will be made.

Unfortunately, too many regents have been operating in the dark. They don’t know what is going on at the campuses and they can be hoodwinked by chancellors and presidents and other administrators. Too often, even if they know changes are called for, they fail to act.

As this writer has noted numerous times, there is no way for regents to know what is going on at all the 32 institutions they are supposed to oversee. They need help. They need some kind of an eyes-and-ears, on-the-ground intelligence system that keeps them informed. Then they need the backbone to make changes, rather than to “let time work things out.”

Kansas has not enjoyed a strong, visionary, tough, enlightened and well-informed board of regents for many years.

Kansas legislators and the governor should be thinking how they can bring about the necessary improvements and changes to be considered at the upcoming legislative session. Kansans deserve better than they are getting in recent years at the board of regents.


4ABetterKU 5 years, 7 months ago

It seems that our state education leaders usually set goals that are far enough down the road that they will not be around when the goal is not met. Maybe I am being too harsh, but that seems to be the safe way of fooling supporters and alumni into thinking you have some wonderful plan of obtaining improvement for our state universities.

When Robert Hemenway announced his goal of KU being ranked in the top 25 of public universities, it sounded like a wonderful and obtainable goal. But, as KU’s educational rankings declined, it became questionable if there even was a workable plan in place to achieve that lofty goal of being a top 25 public university. As long as the top 25 goal was talked about, though, people believed KU and Hemenway had a plan for achieving greatness.

A similar scenario took place in 2006, when the KU Athletic Department announced their goal of achieving a top 25 athletic ranking by 2011 in the prestigious National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics competition. In 2006, when KU placed 60th in national athletic rankings, a plan to move a KU department into the 25 best in the nation sounded like a wonderful goal. It would move KU closer to their best ever 28th place finish in 1994 and restore some pride to the university. But, where was the plan? By 2011, the KU Athletic Department had declined twelve positions to rank as the 72nd best athletic department in the nation, and the worst athletic department in the Big 12 conference. Were there any consequences for the KU athletic administration? No. The goal had been set far enough down the road that by 2011, most of the so-called “leaders” of the KU athletic department were long gone from KU. Once again, “set the goal far enough down the road that it will be forgotten or won’t impact us” seemed to work as planned.

Goals for our state universities are wonderful. But, they need to be set in a measurable timeframe that impacts the current administration. Create a workable plan, and then monitor that plan to find out if it actually works. If rankings are declining, then study and improve the plan.

Kansas can be a wonderful place to live. But, we need leaders that truly lead.

LogicMan 5 years, 7 months ago

Yet another pot shot at our institutions of higher learning.

Instead of complaining about lack of leadership, show some. What specifically needs to be done, then go out and make it happen.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

"What is needed is a better-informed, more courageous board of regents."

Perhaps, but you won't get one of the seats. Push for tax increases, Sir. That's what is needed if you are serious. Legislators are starving higher education on purpose.

chootspa 5 years, 7 months ago

The US News rankings are a hoax. They're a beauty contest that use criteria that can be gamed. Sure, we can advance our rankings, but it won't mean that we're teaching any better.

Want a plan? How's this - we start rejecting more applicants. That will go a long way. If we passed a rule that said all state high school residents automatically applied for KU and then processed the rejection letters for the ones who didn't meet the test score or GPA requirements, we'd automatically rise in the rankings. Boom. Not a bit of teaching or learning would be impacted.

parrothead8 5 years, 7 months ago

Who pays for all those application fees?

chootspa 5 years, 7 months ago

Waive the fee for in state automatic applicants, but make something in the process guarantee that they'll be rejected unless they take action - like require an essay. Poof - instant climb up the rankings.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

I like that. Let the kids have a crack at KU. If they flunk out they will continue elsewhere. No one knows where real genius lies. Some of these kids will succeed. Let them try.

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 7 months ago

Mr. Simons misses the target when he says none at KU are concerned with rankings. The new leadership is putting in place measures to make KU better in terms of national rankings and in terms of the American Association of Universities. These are specific measures that address directly the criteria used in coming up with these rankings. These include: 1) Higher admissions standards. 2) Freshman retention. 3) Graduating in four and six years by changing the general ed requirements. 4) Student to faculty ratio (hiring more faculty). 5) Endowment per student. 6) Increasing research activity. 7) Increasing faculty quality (post tenure review).

I could go on, but the current leadership at KU, while certainly not perfect, are moving in the right direction. More so than Hemenway or Schulenburger ever did.

Change takes time. KU delayed the new admissions standards for four years to allow Kansas high schools to better prepare their students.

It might not work and it might be too late, but the right changes are happening at KU.

Phillbert 5 years, 7 months ago

Shorter Dolph: Forget long-term solutions, only look for short-term ways to game the rankings. Oh, and make me Regent.

And it wasn't "a week or so" after the meeting that K-State said it wanted to be known as "Kansas State." It was AT THAT MEETING. Do you even read your own newspaper anymore?

cowboy 5 years, 7 months ago

pretty much spot on , might add....Ive run my family business into the ground and have a lot of time on my hands...and I really really really want to be a regent with secret spies on all the campuses.

scarletbhound 5 years, 7 months ago

It's abundantly clear that much of the strategy to improve graduation and retention rates at KU hinges on lowering academic standards, as evidenced by the proposed general education redesign that includes dropping the Western Civ requirement and allowing more "flexibility" in student course selection. This means students will likely be able to avoid academically challenging subjects to focus on job-oriented majors, which typically lack much intellectual rigor.; for example, education, marketing and other similar career paths that don't require much mental effort. The end result will be a complete travesty: students lacking even a basic awareness of serious intellectual thought but KU will have impressive graduation retention/rates. My suggestion to anyone seeking a truly quality education -- the kind I received on Mount Oread 40 years ago -- is to avoid the KU that the current "let them graduate stupid" administration is creating.

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 7 months ago

scarletbhound, I read your post with curiosity and fail to see how redesigning a general curriculum is lowering academic standards. From my understanding, this will increase the depth of student involvement in their majors rather than taking many shallow intro courses in History and English and Science. Students will have the ability to take in depth, advanced courses in their chosen subjects. This will also help in time to graduation.

Whether or not students should all take western civ is a separate issue. Do not conflate not requiring it with a lowering of standards.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

Good point. We must, however, humanize and civilize youth. Pure technocrats sans heart can be dangerous.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

Issues of access to education, teaching and learning standards and costs/benefits to each student and society at-large are difficult to handle, particularly in a poisonous political snakepit. It is not all about money and all about building community. In the end we will all sink or swim together.

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