Saturday Column: KU must foster better relationships in Topeka

Earlier this week, Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little addressed a gathering of KU faculty and administrators to give them an update on university happenings.

One of the issues, one that is likely to remain an issue for some time, is the manner in which KU officials and the Kansas Board of Regents maneuvered a $350 million bond issue to fund a huge development project on the southwest corner of the main campus.

The issue caught fire among a number of Kansas legislators, who threatened possibly negative and punishing actions relative to the university’s requests for state funding.

This particular issue and the manner in which it was handled by KU officials served as a spark that opened up a long-standing and simmering sense of mistrust between KU officials and state lawmakers.

Some senior KU officials do not hide their dislike of or lack of confidence in many legislators. They think the lawmakers do not realize or appreciate the importance of adequate funding for a state-aided “flagship” institution. They claim part of the problem is that not enough legislators have college degrees and that there is a bias against KU.

Legislators, on the other hand, think too many at KU, particularly those in Strong Hall, consider themselves as superior, smarter elitists and have little, if any, knowledge of the state or appreciation of the needs and challenges of those living west of Topeka.

They believe the years-old identification of KU as “snob hill” is accurate and timely, and that Kansas State University, along with Wichita State, Fort Hays State, Emporia State and Pittsburg State, are more reflective of true Kansas values. KU and Lawrence represent the liberal capital of the state.

It’s not a good situation, not one to build good relations and understanding between KU/Lawrence and legislators who represent other areas of the state. There’s one other factor: Lawrence and KU already have it pretty good, very good, compared to the rest of the state. KU and the independent KU Endowment Association are wrapping up a highly successful $1.3 billion capital campaign, and Lawrence is looked upon with envy by many in the state.

Acknowledging the poor relationship between KU and state legislators, Gray-Little told her KU audience the university is launching a new branding campaign. She said the Jayhawk, the logo and the font will not change, but the campaign will look for “new and consistent ways to help KU tell a story.”

This matter of not being able to tell the KU story in an effective manner is not new. In years past, with various chancellors, there was a genuine sense of appreciation among state lawmakers for the role, performance and benefit to the state provided by the university.

There always has been a battle for adequate funding, but there was a mutual understanding on the need for a cooperative relationship between the Legislature and KU leadership. Also, governors, aside from the late George Docking, may have had their differences relative to KU and its leaders, but they were well aware of KU’s role and importance. Governors made every effort to appoint individuals to the Board of Regents who merited high respect by the public and those in higher education.

However, for the past decade or so — the last five or so years under Chancellor Robert Hemenway and now with Gray-Little — this environment has changed. There is a different attitude, and it’s easy to point fingers. Assigned spokespeople for the university have done a poor job in Topeka in building a positive story for KU.

For example, the last two KU provosts, Richard Lariviere and Jeff Vitter, did not win supporters or admirers among state lawmakers. Both were highly intelligent, some say brilliant, but Lariviere was described as arrogant and argumentative and Vitter as terribly difficult to visit with.

Likewise, those assigned to “tell the KU story” have been ineffective, with many in Topeka claiming Kansas State lobbyists “run circles” around their KU counterparts.

Now, KU is trying to hire a new provost, although it is difficult to understand why a top-flight candidate would give serious consideration to the job when he or she has no idea how long Gray-Little would be his or her boss.

KU is a very good university with the potential to be one of the nation’s best state-aided institutions. State lawmakers and the governor should, and probably do, know this, but attitudes and the manner of many representing the school handicap efforts to build KU into an even greater school and asset for the state.

Let’s hope Gray-Little’s efforts to look for “new and consistent ways to help KU tell a story” will prove successful. If so, the state and the university both will be winners.

As she noted, changing a typeface, logo or Jayhawk are not going to get the job done. Far more changes are needed, maybe a change in some people. It will require a far different attitude by many on Mount Oread and this, in turn, is likely to result in major improvements and better understanding among lawmakers, perhaps turning critics into supporters.