Saturday Column: KU, KSU must find, hire best leaders for top jobs

Two extremely important Kansas higher education positions are open and will be filled soon. Candidates for the provost’s office at Kansas University will be interviewed next week, and the search committee for a new president at Kansas State University has been named and is about to begin its task of selecting candidates.

Kansas’ system of higher education is facing many serious challenges, and, in such a delicate environment, it is essential to have the best possible individuals serving in academic leadership positions.

There is no excuse for not seeking and hiring the best possible candidates rather than settling for second-best. Too often, rather than start new search efforts when potential candidates do not measure up, those on selection teams have decided to hire the “next best.”

This is shortchanging the institutions, the state, taxpayers and students.

KU’s provost and KSU’s president can and should play powerful roles in telling and selling their school’s story, both internally and externally.

KU has serious problems and challenges, and selecting someone who is visionary, highly respected and a skilled communicator would be a major step in restoring confidence and respect for the university.

KU’s relationship with Kansas legislators is not good, and the provost probably has more interaction with lawmakers than any other KU official. The two previous provosts, for various reasons, have not done well with legislators, nor have they enjoyed good relations with and the respect of faculty members, the Kansas Board of Regents or the public.

Granted, it’s a two-way street, and there needs to be respectful relations among the universities, state legislators and the governor. Unfortunately, on many occasions, this has been lacking in Topeka.

Again, the importance of selecting an outstanding individual to move into the provost’s office cannot be overemphasized.

The selection of such an individual would send a strong message that KU is turning a corner in its efforts to regain the respect, enthusiasm, excellence, excitement and faculty morale that KU used to merit and enjoy, both on and off the campus.

Likewise, the search for a new KSU president is important to that university, as well as the state. Each of the state universities has a role to play, and the goal of all Kansans should be for KSU to be one of this nation’s best and most comprehensive land-grant universities. Former KSU president Jon Wefald turned the school around during his 20-plus years as its leader. Enrollment numbers were dropping, fiscal support was lagging, faculty morale was poor, the football program was so poor it could easily have affected KSU’s membership in the Big Eight conference, and alumni support was not good. Wefald, in many respects, saved KSU.

Kirk Schulz moved in after Wefald’s retirement and has generated mixed reviews. He has been successful in raising private fiscal support for the university, but there have been questions from some about how much time he spends away from the campus. Critics claim there is a “disconnect” between the administration and KSU’s sports fans and alumni.

It’s obvious there is significant dissent, but others say Schulz has done a good job at KSU. New buildings have been added, he has strengthened both the business and engineering schools, and, according to his supporters, he has added “great credibility to the school.”

The potential for building KU and KSU into better academic and research institutions is great, but it will require exceptional leadership and vision at both schools. Why shouldn’t Kansas strive for the best? Why not us?