Saturday Column: Provost choice is one key to brighter KU future

The question currently being presented to the three finalists seeking to become provost of Kansas University is: “How can a provost foster an intellectually vibrant campus and advance the educational research quality of a university?”

This same question should be asked of the KU chancellor, the deans and, really, the entire KU faculty. What do they think their role is in advancing the university?

Obviously, it takes a solid, visionary, courageous, highly motivated, passionate team approach to inspire and create an environment of excellence. However, one or two individuals in strategic positions can, and should, play a critical role IF a university is to achieve excellence.

There are other players in the overall picture relative to a state-aided university, such as the board of regents, the endowment association, the alumni association, the governor, state legislators and the general public.

The two individuals most critical to setting the stage and creating an environment of excellence and vision are the chancellor and provost. Unfortunately, this has been lacking in recent years on Mount Oread.

This is why it is so important the new KU provost is an excellent communicator who is highly respected by the academic community, state lawmakers and the public.

KU has paid a high price for its inability to tell its story in Topeka. This must be one of the top personal efforts of the provost, who also must select an effective vice chancellor, lobbyist or public relations person who can be far more effective and respected by those in Topeka than has been the case in recent years.

KU is a very good state-aided university with the potential to become an even greater institution. However, there are serious problems.

Several days ago, this writer visited with a group of faculty members and asked, “What can be done or what is needed to help elevate KU to a higher level of excellence and national recognition?”

One of the professors replied, “You are asking the wrong question. You should be asking, ‘What can be done to keep the university from falling behind?'”

The professor then cited serious concerns about losing too many mid-career faculty members, the lack of leadership in Strong Hall, continued budget cuts, money being spent for bricks and mortar rather than for salaries and research assistance, the matter of guns on the campus, the lack of understanding in Topeka of the commitment by a majority of faculty members to helping students achieve their career aspirations, the price higher education is paying for failures in other facets of state operations, policy issues within the state, poor morale among the faculty and many other problems.

One said, “It’s up to Topeka to decide what kind of a school they want here in Lawrence: a school of liberal arts and sciences, a national research institution, an Association of American Universities school, a trade school, a flagship university or what?”

Two days after this meeting, officials in Topeka announced the governor was calling for continuation of a 3 percent “allotment” cut in funding for state universities for the current fiscal year and next year. This is estimated to cost all state universities more than $17 million each year. KU’s cut would be $4 million each year for the Lawrence campus and $3.2 million each year for the KU Medical Center.

This is the environment at KU when the university is looking for the right individual to move into the provost’s office.

The state’s fiscal situation is one giant hurdle, but it is essential, critical, that leadership, vision and respect be injected into the provost’s office if the university is to overcome its current lumbering manner and regain the enthusiasm, pride and excitement of past years.