Saturday Column: Provost candidates well qualified, but one stands out

Standing room only attendance at the public presentations by candidates seeking the job of provost at Kansas University sent a clear message regarding interest in and concern about who will take over this important position.

Each of the candidates — Neeli Bendapudi, dean of business at KU; Larry Singell, executive dean of arts and sciences at Indiana University; and Chaden Djalali, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Iowa — differed in their presentations but all focused on a similar theme: better communications. And, as expected, all crafted their remarks to gain the support of the faculty-dominated audience.

It is interesting that two of the three are foreign-born. Bendapudi was born in India, and Djalali was born in Morocco.

Bendapudi was well-known to most of the audience, or at least her record was, and she demonstrated firsthand knowledge of the serious situation on Mount Oread. She was at ease and congenial in her presentation.

The other two, from out of state, were unknown and had the challenge of establishing their credibility as well as how they would address the question posed to all the candidates: “How can a provost foster an intellectually vibrant campus and advance the educational and research quality of the university?”

The timetable calls for all the relative information about the candidates, along with the assessment of those who served on the search and selection committee, to be collected and reviewed over the next two weeks and then be forwarded to the chancellor, who will make the final selection.

It was obvious there is great interest among the faculty in who will become provost. It was also obvious there are serious issues facing the university, and faculty members wanted to know how each candidate would address these matters.

Money and the consequences of cutbacks in state funding were common concerns, and each candidate said university officials must do a far better job in telling the school’s story, the importance of KU to the state and the importance of developing better relationships with state lawmakers.

Each candidate said the provost must be a good and highly respected communicator with the faculty, the local community (Lawrence and the state) and with legislators. The provost must be open and honest with the faculty and make a genuine effort to learn and appreciate all sides of contentious issues.

Obviously Bendapudi is well aware of the current situation while Singell and Djalali had to shape their remarks on what others may have told them.

All three candidates have excellent records. Unfortunately, two of the three — Singell and Djalali — based on their records, seem to be engaged in a game of academic hopscotch, trying to skip from school to school with the goal of landing a chancellorship or presidency. Bendapudi certainly has her eye on eventually moving into the top position of a major university (or a major business position), but her current goal is to remain at KU to help make the university an even greater institution.

It is known she has turned down numerous prestigious and higher-paying jobs to remain at KU.

The records of the other two candidates should raise the question in the minds of those making their thoughts known to the chancellor of how long either intends to remain in the KU provost’s office before looking for a higher position elsewhere.

There’s also the matter of the “KU situation” becoming more serious or dangerous week by week. Faculty unrest, poor morale, the contentious relationship with legislators, the loss of talented faculty, continual reductions in state fiscal support and many other issues are real problems and cannot be overstated.

One of the candidates knows this from firsthand experience, and she is known and respected by state lawmakers, KU alumni and major business leaders. The KU faculty knows her and knows her record. Some may be jealous of her success, and envy may play a role in how such faculty members judge her qualifications.

How long would it take for the other two candidates to learn and understand the political landscape as well as earn the respect of faculty and Kansas legislators?

The university cannot afford to place the school’s future on hold until those in Strong Hall get up to speed. As it is, no one has any idea how long Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little intends to remain as the school’s leader, and this certainly is on the minds of all three candidates for the provost’s position, although none mentioned this at the public meetings.

Is the KU chancellorship the goal of each candidate and, if so, which one would make the best leader? Will this come into consideration when the chancellor makes her selection for the next provost?

Again, the importance of getting the right person as the new provost cannot be overstated. The university cannot be handicapped by inaction, acceptance of mediocrity, poor relations with and lack of respect from state lawmakers and a lack of understanding by the governor of the importance of excellence at the state-aided universities.

Do legislators and the governor understand the importance and role of a “flagship” institution and the benefits to the state of a university’s membership in the Association of American Universities?

KU enjoys a proud record, but this does not guarantee continued success. Changes and improvements must be made. Faculty, students, alumni and friends of the university will get a clear signal regarding the aspirations for KU based on whom the chancellor selects as the university’s next provost.