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Archive for Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saturday Column: Retaining top faculty members is challenge for KU

May 3, 2014

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The health and welfare of Kansas University is critical to Lawrence, as well as to the entire state.

The university is the city’s largest employer and the single largest factor in the city’s economy. Faculty and students add a great deal to the quality of life in the community, and the presence of a major academic institution makes the city more attractive to new residents, new businesses and industry.

The same can be said for other communities with state-aided universities as well as the communities that have community colleges, church-affiliated colleges and vocational-technical schools. A university or college is a tremendous asset for any community.

This being the case, Lawrence residents should be concerned about the health of KU, the excellence of its faculty, its attractiveness to students and the success of its graduates — even the success of its athletic programs.

Many factors are essential if a school is to be recognized for its excellence, but, perhaps the most important is its faculty. The list of distinguished professors at KU offers evidence of what elevates the school from average to nationally ranked.

One of the big challenges in today’s academic environment is how to keep talented teachers and researchers while the nation’s best colleges and universities are constantly recruiting new scholars, the rising all-stars, to their campuses.

KU faces the task of retaining its bright, relatively young, faculty members. It’s likely there are several factors that carry significant weight in the minds of those giving serious thought to accepting attractive offers from other top-flight AAU schools. These would include advancement in the academic structure, the excellence of those with whom they would be working, higher salaries, academic freedom and/or freedom of speech in the current social media environment.

Currently, KU is facing the very real possibility of losing several highly talented, nationally recognized faculty members, perhaps more. Their departures would be a big loss, and it probably wouldn’t take too much for KU to strengthen its hold on them.

Granted, money is tight in Kansas and at KU, although the KU Endowment Association is raising record numbers of dollars. Also, there ought to be some way to speed faculty members’ progress up the academic ladder.

The endowment association is in a tough position in that it does indeed have a very healthy and attractive financial statement but, historically, endowment officials have made it clear it should not provide funding for programs the state should fund. Endowment money has provided the “frosting on the cake,” not the cake itself.

Although it’s difficult to measure the overall strength of a university and its prospects for the future, the direction it is heading, its leadership and the attitude of the state relative to the importance and support of higher education certainly are serious considerations.

Residents of Lawrence, Manhattan, Hays, Pittsburg, Emporia, Wichita and Kansas City, Kan., all should be concerned about the health of their universities. They are important to the respective cities, as well as to the state. The health of these institutions will determine whether the state’s brightest young people elect to stay in Kansas and attend a state university or go elsewhere and likely remain in that state after graduation. Likewise, will outstanding teachers, researchers, deans and others elect to remain in Kansas or leave for more attractive classrooms, research labs and offices at schools in other states?

The current Kansas legislative session is over, and the final budget will be signed by the governor in the next few days. It is unfortunate that more funds were not appropriated for higher education, but all residents and all taxpayers should realize the state must live within its budget. This is true in Kansas just as it is in most other states where budgets are tight and those in education are not able to get their complete wish list from state lawmakers.

This being the case, Kansans, particularly those living in university communities, should get to work right now, not just a few weeks before the 2015 legislative session is set to convene, and build a strong case for adequate funding for higher education. Also, all Kansans, not just state economic development officials or chamber of commerce leaders, should have a deep interest in doing what they can to attract new business, new industry and new tax revenue for the state.

Wringing hands, criticizing lawmakers, the governor, the Kansas Board of Regents or others and pointing fingers of blame is the current name of the game, but hard work and a positive story is going to accomplish far more.

As has been said before, the chancellor, presidents and others tied directly to higher education also need to do a far better and more effective job of telling their story and convincing lawmakers of the importance of education to the future of Kansas.

There is a definite tie between the quality and importance of education in the minds of residents and the attractiveness and quality of life in that state.

Will KU lose several, maybe more, top, nationally recognized faculty members in the next month or so, or will they remain on Mount Oread?

What’s the cost of keeping them versus the cost of losing them?

Comments

Linda and Bill Houghton 7 months, 3 weeks ago

Koch money in the pockets of the politicians is much more persuasive the any university can possibly be.

Larry Sturm 7 months, 3 weeks ago

Education has no priority with the Republican legislature. Pray that we can do better next year.

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