Saturday Column: Length of university leaders’ tenure is regents’ call

March 1, 2014


The question of how long Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little will remain as KU’s leader has been raised by Kansas Senate Democratic leader Anthony Hensley.

In a Feb. 22 Journal-World story, the Topeka legislator said Gov. Sam Brownback is trying to pressure Gray-Little to vacate her position. Hensley also said unnamed sources associated with the Kansas Board of Regents told him the governor is upset with the chancellor.

A spokesman for the governor denied the allegation, as did Regents Chairman Fred Logan.

It’s not known why Hensley made his statement. Was there some behind-the-scenes reason to open up speculation or did he think such a charge would put Brownback in a bad light? Who knows?

However, it does raise the question of how much longer Gray-Little wants to remain in the chancellor’s chair.

It also raises the question — really not a question, but the fact — that a chancellor serves at the pleasure and approval of the regents. They call the shots.

And, based on the performance of past regents in handing this responsibility with former KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway, they did not display courage or leadership.

The regents left Hemenway twisting in the wind for four, five or possibly six years. Hemenway was a good man but he had health problems in his later years as chancellor. The regents were aware of the situation but did nothing. They could have figured out a way to have Hemenway step aside with dignity by creating an emeritus position or taking some action to allow him to leave when he was on the top of his game. They did nothing. It was bad for Hemenway and bad for the university.

Whether it’s KU or any other school, there always are differing opinions about the excellence or approval of a chancellor or president. It is a highly prestigious position but a difficult and challenging position. It also is a position, for chancellors who do well, that can serve as a stepping stone to higher or better-paying jobs.

Logan called Hensley’s charge that the governor would like to see Gray-Little step aside “absolute hooey.” Logan, who was appointed to the nine-member board by Brownback said, “I have talked to the governor about the chancellor, and he holds her in very high regard and has the utmost respect for the job she has done. He likes Bernadette Gray-Little a lot, and so there is not even a shred of truth to that statement.”

The Johnson County attorney added, “The Board of Regents holds her in extremely high regard.”

Who believes what and who believes whom?

People — often including politicians and those appointed to high positions by high officeholders — have been known to speak out of both sides of their mouths.

One fact is known: The regents have the responsibility, the duty, to take the initiative when determining the tenure of a chancellor or president. They should take the initiative, rather than be in a reactionary posture. They should decide when and if it is time for a chancellor or president to step aside rather than wait for that person to decide how long to serve. It should be what is in the best interests of the university, not what’s the most comfortable or pleasant for the regents or the chancellor or president.

It would be wrong to suggest Gray-Little is without critics. There have been and continue to be many who have expressed displeasure with her. Obviously, she is highly intelligent, but she is not a good communicator. A large number of faculty fault her for a lack of leadership, and she has been unable to win over state legislators. Many KU alumni are critical of the chancellor, and some regents have expressed unhappiness or frustration with her.

One of the continuing questions from those interested in the university is: “How long do you think Chancellor Gray-Little will remain as chancellor? When will she leave or when will the regents decide it is time to make a change?”

Is this the reason Hensley floated the suggestion or allegation that the governor wants her to be replaced?

The question, or subject, now is out in the open.

Gray-Little is 68 years old and has been the KU chancellor since 2009. Currently, the average tenure for major college presidents is four to seven years. Will she want to wait until she is 70 years old, until the current capital campaign is finished or perhaps longer? Or will her resignation come relatively soon?

And what do the regents want?


Kendall Simmons 4 years ago

Last Saturday I bet this week's Saturday column would be about Chancellor Gray-Little. Dolph is soooo predictable.

Julius Nolan 4 years ago

Dolph's usual Sat column is an attack on KU, or something remotely connected to KU. Have never, in my time in Lawrence, written a sat column supporting anyone or anything connected to KU

Julius Nolan 4 years ago

Been here since Aug 1993 when JW was still afternoon paper Must have missed this anomaly..

Lee Saylor 4 years ago

I can provide more, if you would like.

Bob Zimmerman 4 years ago

No need to worry. If she leaves, KU leadership will rest in the capable hands and visionary mind of the ever charismatic Provost Vitter.

Paul R Getto 4 years ago

Not sure when he started hating KU. Without it Lawrence would be - Ottawa.

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