The question of what makes a top-flight university can be answered a number of ways, but, in the end, most observers are likely to say a superior faculty is the most critical factor.
Scenic campuses; good athletic teams; more than merely adequate fiscal support, both private and from state tax dollars; a good student body; visionary leadership; national grants and alumni support all are important, but the excellence, national and international reputation of the faculty is the driving factor in determining what is a top-flight university.
For Kansas University students, the school year starts in mid-August and ends in May but for faculty members, the year ends on June 30 and begins anew the next day, July 1.
In the next several weeks there will be numerous changes in the university’s faculty, with some leaving and others moving to fill vacancies, along with a few additional positions, all hopefully to help raise the overall excellence of the university.
One distinguishing feature of the KU faculty is the number of outstanding teachers and researchers who have offer after offer to go elsewhere at considerably higher salaries but elect to remain on Mount Oread. This loyalty or attachment to the university, and Lawrence, is truly remarkable.
A change in a KU deanship at the end of this month offers a perfect example.
Stan Rolfe, a member of the KU faculty for 44 years, a distinguished professor with international recognition and honors for his work in fracture mechanics, has been serving as interim dean of the School of Engineering for the past year.
Former engineering dean Stuart Bell left KU to become provost at Louisiana State University. This was a major loss for KU as Bell was considered one of KU’s best and an individual who might easily have moved into a higher position on Mount Oread.
It was essential to replace Bell with an outstanding, capable, highly respected, time-tested, internationally known engineer. This was particularly so with the heightened attention on the need to increase the numbers of engineering students, add faculty members and get ready for construction of a huge $80 million building.
Over the years, Rolfe had received offers for senior positions at a number of the nation’s most outstanding schools of engineering. Each time, he and his wife, Phyllis, elected to say “thanks” but decided to stay at KU. Prior to Bell’s announcement about his intention to accept the LSU position, the Rolfes had planned to take an extended vacation and catch up on travel, and relaxation, and to enable Prof. Rolfe to move into a less demanding teaching and research load in the School of Engineering. It was something Rolfe had been anticipating for some time.
However, with the departure of the dean, his fellow engineering faculty members leaned on Rolfe — in fact, leaned pretty hard — urging him to postpone his plans to take it a bit easier and accept an even heavier load and a more demanding position as interim dean.
Rolfe didn’t need an “interim dean” title as an ego trip. He certainly had paid his dues to the school over a 44-year period, and he had looked forward to being able to spend more time with his family. But he said “yes” and moved into the dean’s office.
From all reports, he has done a superior job, and the engineering school has marked an excellent year, maintaining or perhaps even accelerating the upward momentum generated by the former dean.
The school had a very successful accreditation visit; the Learned Engineering Expansion Phase II $80 million building design is finished, the groundbreaking has taken place and construction is scheduled to begin this summer. Six new faculty hires have been confirmed, and an additional eight positions are pending out of a total of 16 searches. Undergraduate enrollment is up 12.6 percent over last year (13 percent for the freshman class alone.) Doctoral student enrollment has passed 200 and is the highest in the school’s history. Research expenditures rose 11.7 percent. At the most recent count, 92 percent of graduates responding to an employment survey report they are employed, going to graduate or professional school, or accepting another planned opportunity such as the Peace Corps. Response to the survey is high, and the 92 percent figure is up from 85 percent in the previous survey.
Asked what pleased him most about his year as interim dean, Rolfe said there were many highlights but perhaps what was the most pleasing and rewarding is that he believes he has helped maintain the upward momentum of the school — and he has taken care of most all of the headaches so that incoming dean Michael Branicky will move into his office with a “clean desk” free of any troubling issues.
The Stan Rolfes are what make KU a special university. The approximately 60 distinguished professors and the other outstanding faculty members are the bedrock, the foundation, that gives the university the opportunity to climb to higher levels of academic and research excellence — IF there is the vision, determination and commitment by the university leadership, the regents, state lawmakers and KU alumni to seize the opportunity and take positive action, instead of just talking about it.