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.