Earlier this week, Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz reiterated his desire or goal to lift his university into the ranks of the top 50 public research universities by 2025.
To reach the top 50, based on current rankings, Schulz would have to jump over 30 to 40 other schools, most of which could be expected to be engaged in their own efforts to improve their own academic/research rankings.
(Here again is the matter of “rankings,” with some at Kansas University claiming rankings don’t mean that much and some members of the Kansas Board of Regents questioning the importance of rankings, suggesting they are merely popularity contests.)
It is good to have Schulz set some challenging goals for his university, but, unfortunately, with the manner in which Kansas’ major research institutions are governed, Kansas State and KU face many handicaps in trying to climb the ladder of university rankings.
Under the current system in Kansas, the nine members of the Board of Regents are expected to oversee and manage 32 institutions. There’s no way, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, that nine individuals can be on top of what is going on at 32 schools. They cannot give adequate time and attention to these schools. As it is, regents are assigned to specific schools among the 32 in the system to visit during the year. They flit from campus to campus, receive a tour of the campus, visit with the president or chancellor, hear from some faculty members and then return home or move on to another campus,
The fact is, KU and KSU each need their own board of regents or, possibly, a board that oversees just those two schools.
Soon after his move into the KU chancellor’s office, Robert Hemenway announced his goal was to have KU move into the top 25 of state-aided universities and then, after achieving this goal, have KU move into the top 25 of all American universities, private and public.
It, too, was a great and challenging goal, but, unfortunately, KU slid to lower rankings during the Hemenway years rather than climbing to higher levels.
Is this a case of inept leadership, ridiculous goals or what? Likewise, what are the chances of KSU jumping over 30 or 40 other schools to move into the top 50? Not too good.
How long will it take for Gov. Sam Brownback and state legislators to realize a change must be made in how the state’s major universities are governed? Nine men and women cannot, and do not, know what is going on, what is needed and what must be done to improve the excellence of 32 state institutions.
If Kansas is to meet its challenges — and opportunities — if Kansas and its residents are to enjoy the benefits of a sound and growing economy, attract talented, visionary and entrepreneurial new residents, KU and KSU must set high standards and develop sustained records of success and achievement.
Other state universities and other competing states are not sitting still. Kansas and its research universities will slip in significance unless there is serious attention given to changing the role of the regents.
Also, the regents must have the courage to call for changes at the schools if individuals or programs are not measuring up. Far too often in past years, regents should have known of underperformances but didn’t have the backbone to make changes. This attitude must be changed.
KSU’s Schulz is wise in setting some high goals, but he made a big mistake in claiming, “I argue that Kansas State has never had a really effective plan for what they want to do in the future.” He added, “We’ve kind of grown organically. If we saw an opportunity, we responded to it. But there wasn’t a set of clear objectives that you said, ‘OK, here is what we want all employees working towards.’”
His goal is to reach the top 50. Apparently, he forgets what his predecessor, Jon Wefald, accomplished in a 20-plus year tenure of completely turning the school around. When Wefald arrived in Manhattan, the school was losing enrollment, private giving was sick, academic achievements were sparse, the physical plant was in bad shape and the football program was so weak the school was about to be booted out of the conference.
He brought enthusiasm, pride, school spirit, a winning athletic program, a new library, a new museum and a truly outstanding record of student achievements in national academic recognition and many other improvements.
It is a damned good record, and one that Schulz would be fortunate to emulate.
Getting back to how to raise the levels of excellence and national rankings at KU and KSU, the first step is to change the manner in which the schools are governed. Give KU and KSU separate boards of regents or curators or a board with sole responsibility for governing just these two schools, not an additional 30 institutions. Also, make sure the chancellor and president of these two schools are measuring up in every respect. If not, make changes. These two offices set the stage for the rest of the school.
The potential for KU and KSU is great! The people of Kansas are proud of their schools, but there isn’t the needed enthusiasm, excitement about academic excellences, vision and leadership of the schools.
The universities and the state deserve better!