A Journal-World editorial last weekend focused on the lack of leadership at Kansas University and the downward slide of KU in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings of public and private American universities.
Not too many years ago, KU was among the top 50 schools in the nation, but it now has slipped to 106th and is surpassed by many of the former Big Eight Conference schools it used to top.
Some try to downplay the importance of rankings and claim they are merely a popularity contest. This is a dangerous exercise because rankings do count, and it would be a serious mistake to think alumni, students, potential faculty members, taxpayers, legislators, high school placement directors and counselors, potential donors and others do not check rankings.
In addition to the U.S. News and World Report, there is another ranking that is extremely important, probably significantly more important. This is the Association of American Universities listing of the top U.S. research universities.
This is a highly prized designation, and KU was accepted for membership in 1909. Membership currently is 61, and there is a desire to limit its growth. There are many top-flight schools knocking on the AAU admissions committee’s door seeking membership.
Nebraska was kicked out of the AAU two years ago, and Syracuse resigned from the association knowing it was about to be dismissed.
Many of the schools seeking admission have greater research activity, funding and excellence than some of the current members, and the membership committee is trying to figure out what to do. The axing of Nebraska got everyone’s attention, and, this year, the committee did not drop or add any members.
It would be foolish for KU officials, the Kansas Board of Regents, faculty members or alumni and friends to try to pooh-pooh the importance of KU’s AAU membership. The embarrassment and damage done if KU were dropped from the association would be immense.
Are those who called the U.S. News and World Report rankings a “hoax” sufficiently confident that they think the AAU membership committee does not look at the magazine’s ratings and wonder why a school ranked 106th is an AAU member while schools ranked considerably higher are not?
It is likely KU officials have been notified they are on thin ice and that there must be evidence the school is making major strides in improving its research efforts. Could this be the reason KU officials made a number of announcements in the past year or so about how they were emphasizing the importance of attracting more research dollars?
It’s likely many associated with KU had taken the AAU membership for granted, KU was an early member and would always be counted among the elite. Unfortunately, times have changed, and now, KU may be hanging on by its fingertips.
Rankings and memberships do count. Likewise, leadership and vision count.
In last week’s column, KU business school dean Neeli Bendapudi was cited as a leader and an example of how a single individual can accomplish great things in elevating the enthusiasm and drive toward excellence.
It would be interesting to know the relative importance of a dean of a school within the university, a provost or a chancellor in developing and building the academic/research excellence of a university.
All are important, terribly important.
The trick would seem to be how to hold onto the good ones and replace those who do not measure up. It’s easier said than done.
KU let a good one get away when former engineering dean Stuart Bell left KU this year to become executive vice chancellor and provost at Louisiana State University. Bell came to KU in 2002 and, during the past 10 years, he injected enthusiasm, vision and leadership into the school. He played a critical role in the physical growth of the school, as well as its excellence. Major additions are being made at the school; student enrollment is up; and private giving to the school has increased significantly.
Dean Bell played a significant role in encouraging Kansas legislators to fund a major program to increase the number of engineering graduates at KU, Kansas State and Wichita State.
A search now is under way to select an outstanding individual to move into the dean’s office. Stan Rolfe is serving as interim dean and he will do a superior job of maintaining the excellence and initiatives Bell oversaw. The university is fortunate to have an individual so talented, loyal and committed willing to take on this responsibility.
What Bell accomplished and the programs and activities now under way will help the school in its search for a truly outstanding new dean.
A university is an entire family, but which members of the family play significant roles in advancing the excellence of the school? Deans, provosts and chancellors are the likely candidates, but how about the faculty? For example, what would KU be today without those who carry the title of distinguished professors?
KU and the Kansas Board of Regents face a challenge in how to attract and hold onto outstanding deans, provosts, chancellors AND faculty and replace those who do not measure up.
A continued decline in various ranking is a disservice to the state, its taxpayers, faculty and students.