Archive for Saturday, June 29, 2013

Simons’ Saturday Column: Leadership gap triggering education ‘perfect storm’

June 29, 2013


Sailors and other mariners always are alert and concerned when weather conditions are such that the elements can combine to create a “perfect storm.” Such situations can be deadly for those caught in the confluence of high winds, huge punishing seas and blinding rain. These conditions are triggered when a low pressure system collides with a high pressure system and warm, moist air pushes in from a tropical system.

Although such situations and conditions are found on the high seas, it seems as if Kansans living on the plains of middle America are witnessing another type of “perfect storm.”

This storm involves state lawmakers, the Kansas Board of Regents, the governor, university administrators, state taxpayers, students, parents of students, teachers and those engaged in big-time college athletics.

The vessel caught in this perfect Kansas storm is called “higher education.”

Those involved in this story have created huge angry waves of blame, partisan politics, stubbornness, inflexibility and a bit of ignorance, along with a lack of common sense, almost impenetrable visibility and dangerous strikes of anger and heated tempers — all of which can cause deep and lasting scars, just as an oceanic perfect storm can sink a vessel.

In today’s economy, most states are encountering problems relative to proper funding for state-aided higher education. However, according to several individuals with deep and wide knowledge of what is happening in higher education throughout the nation, it is difficult to name a state with a larger or more contentious challenge that the one now facing Kansas.

How long will this storm last, and how severe will the lasting damage be?

Kansas regents just gave KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little a $60,000 raise and did the same for Kansas State President Kirk Schulz. The other four state university presidents received pay raises ranging from $15,000 to $6,000.

At the same time, regents and state legislators have pinched faculty salary increases to 2 percent, keeping salaries on a minimal life support infusion over the past several years.

Faculty morale is bad, very bad, for numerous reasons.

Some state legislators claim universities are not being run efficiently, that they waste money and do not get the maximum production or effort from their faculty, particularly full professors. Cutbacks in state funding have triggered higher tuition for students, which, in turn, is likely to bring about higher debts for students and/or their families. This could cause a reduction in enrollment numbers.

At a time of major penny-pinching and cutbacks throughout the campus, those in the athletic department are enjoying multimillion-dollar salaries, record high revenues and making plans for multimillion-dollar expansion projects. This doesn’t sit well with many of those working in Mount Oread classrooms.

Added to this is the question being raised by many on and off the campus: If the KU Endowment Association can afford to give the chancellor a $60,000 pay raise and participate in the multimillion-dollar Rock Chalk Park development, isn’t there something they could do to help improve faculty salaries?

Justified or not — the opinions vary — there are growing questions among KU faculty about the effectiveness, leadership and vision of KU Chancellor Gray-Little. At the same time, there is increased appreciation and respect across the state for the vision and entrepreneurship of Fort Hays State President Ed Hammond.

The regents continue to be a puzzle because they do not seem to have a firm handle on what is going on at the various campuses they oversee. Or, if they do know of troubles, they appear to lack the courage or backbone to make timely and necessary changes or improvements. Just this week, Gov. Sam Brownback appointed three new members to this important body and, unfortunately, initial reactions to the appointments have been far less than enthusiastic or positive. As one senior KU professor said, “I am most disappointed. We really do need some folks of true substance with better political antennae on the board. It sure doesn’t look like that.”

Again, morale at KU is bad and getting worse.

What we have is a giant mess, a stalemate, an arm-wrestling contest between relative incompetents, a game of “chicken” or a stare-down among political leaders to see who blinks first, a weak and underperforming Board of Regents, a lack of strong leadership in Topeka throughout the Statehouse and, unfortunately, a lack of leadership at the state’s “flagship” institution of higher learning, which sets the standards for the entire state.

As a result, higher education in Kansas is merely drifting along with the tide, treading water, falling further behind while other states and other universities take advantage of Kansas’ higher education quagmire.

Why can’t Kansas be a leader in higher education, serving as an example for other states to emulate?

The longer the current situation is allowed to fester, the more difficult it will be to get KU, as well as the other regents institutions, performing up to their potential and contributing to the betterment of the state.

Currently, it is a sad and embarrassing situation.

Where is the leadership?


seagull 4 years, 11 months ago

If faculty morale is bad (not sure how Dolph knows this) it is largely because we live in a state that currently has a legislature that does not value public education. The Chancellor's recent "raise" is a red herring. It is symbolically problematic in a year in which faculty will get small, if any raises, but it is not unjustified. The state ought to be stepping up to provide adequate salaries (comparable to chancellors and presidents at like institutions) for leaders as well as faculty--and the K-12 schools. When Dolph writes a column chastising the legislature, not just the administrators and regents who have to do more with less every year, then we might take him seriously.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 11 months ago

Why should we expect Brownback's quality of Regent appointments to be any different than the quality of other appointments he has made since he began as governor? These are characterized by political patronage, religious congruence and willingness to follow marching orders even if they make little sense. No, don't expect the trends to shift anytime soon as there is no indication that Sam is interested in gathering intelligence from the ground and coming up with solutions and directives based on that intelligence. The lodestar he orients to is almost purely ideological in nature, and the resulting "leadership" shows every indication that our state's future under Brownback's tutelage will continue to be like water poured into a rat's nest.

Mike1949 4 years, 11 months ago

Kansas legislature has failed Kansans. It has been at least 5 years or more since we have had any leadership in Topeka! Until we get rid of backwards thinking politicians, Kansas is in deep trouble!

Jack Martin 4 years, 11 months ago

First, credit where it is due. Mr. Simons does have some grasp on the national context in which research universities are operating. But after a respectable start, he veers back into his standard lines of attack.

Since Saturday Columns are rarely informed by the reporting that takes place in the newspaper the rest of the week, here is a refresher on a few of the advances that have taken place at the University of Kansas under Chancellor Gray-Little:

-- New admission standards for KU that are different from all other Regents universities - something many said could never be done - and that will give students and families a more accurate picture of what it takes to succeed at a flagship university.

-- The KU Core, the first revamp of the general education requirements in decades, which by including experiential learning makes KU a leader among its national peers.

-- A complete overhaul of the scholarship program to create four-year renewable scholarships. This was something Chancellor Gray-Little talked about in her first meeting with the deans as being vital to student recruitment and success.

-- Related to scholarships, the revamp of student recruitment - a favorite topic of this columnist - which has resulted in a turnaround in freshman enrollment. Not only was last year's freshman class the largest since 2009, but it also set records for academic preparedness and diversity.

-- Record fundraising totals year after year, including the remarkable success of the Far Above campaign, which Chancellor Gray-Little is actively involved in through more than a dozen fundraising events and many dozen meetings with donors over just the past year.

-- The Changing for Excellence initiative, which is making KU administrative functions more efficient so we can reinvest in teaching and research. One small example: KU now gets better prices on office supplies than the state government does.

These may be a surprise to regular readers of the Saturday Column, as most, if not all of these facts have never been mentioned here. Instead we get the usual collection of anonymous quotes surrounded by repetitive complaints and questions for which answers are never actually sought. That's not reporting and it certainly isn't leadership.

Mark Pickerel 4 years, 11 months ago

Well said. Mr. Simons is like a broken record.

Patricia Davis 4 years, 11 months ago

Actually, I think Dolph would make an excellent Regent. The voice he raises is often one of experience tempered with frustration and exasperation.Today's leaders lack the sense of history of this state, something Dolph totally understands. I don't always agree with Dolph, but I have never wavered in my admiration of his desire for Kansas to be better than it sometimes wants to be.

Joe Hyde 4 years, 11 months ago

Where is the leadership? It's in the same place it's always been: the state legislature and governor's office. The current problem is that the legislature and governor's office are occupied by power hungry, hyper-ideological "conservatives" (actually radicals) who are profoundly anti-intellectual in personal social outlook.

This body of lawmakers took office financially supported by, and directed by, a pair of billionnaire industrialists who intend to control every aspect of Kansas society to better expand their wealth and future political control. It is therefore illogical to expect these "conservatives" to organize for a boost in public education funding. Our state's "conservative" lawmakers fear the people with brains, because people with brains quickly see through the forest of emotionalized distractions intended to keep the populace "controlled".

The solution is to vote out of office enough ultra-conservative radicals that a new legislature and governor steer Kansas back to its former course heading that delivers a centered and balanced governing philosophy. It's the only solution: our present radical right majority has shown itself constitutionally incapable of doing much beyond systematically deceiving, intimidating and dumbing down the state's populace.

yourworstnightmare 4 years, 10 months ago

Just name Mr. Simons a Regent already.

It might stop this cavalcade of misguided complaint and attack, and the regents are pretty much irrelevant to the current governor and legislature anyway.

What could it hurt?

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