Saturday Column: KU leaders should learn from situation facing MU

The newspaper headline reads: “Lawmakers want more say over MU operations.”

The story in the Kansas City Star reports: “Missouri legislators dissatisfied with how the University of Missouri System has operated this school year, are looking to take away some control from its board of curators.”

A Columbia, Mo., state senator has sponsored a bill that would create a commission “to review the university with authority to recommend changes.” The senator, who also serves as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement, “My goal in filing this resolution is to provide an objective evaluation of the university’s structure, accountability and transparency.”

The proposed commission would have eight members: four appointed by the president pro tem of the Missouri Senate and four appointed by the House speaker.

The news story reports “the job of the commission would be to review the university system’s rules and regulations, administrative structure, campus structure, auxiliary enterprise structure, degree programs, research activities and diversity programs.”

The state senator from Columbia said he believes the far-reaching measure is “necessary to ensure the long-term survival and growth of this capable institution and to earn back the trust and respect that has been lost through a series of recent poor decisions.”

The MU administration and members of the system’s board of curators drew criticism for their handing of racial issues at MU, a situation that triggered the resignations of MU’s chancellor and the system’s president. The schools’ projected enrollment numbers have dropped and there is fear that private fiscal support will decline. A reduction in state aid, based on lower enrollment numbers, may force the school to make major changes in its operation.

Kansas University administrators, the entire KU community, the Kansas Board of Regents, KU alumni and friends, prospective students and their parents and those charged with encouraging private fiscal support for the university all should be concerned and interested in this situation and perhaps learn a lesson from what is happening in Columbia and Jefferson City.

It would be wrong to think it couldn’t happen in Lawrence and Topeka.

KU does not enjoy a good relationship with many in the Kansas Legislature. KU has done a poor, very poor, job of telling its story and nurturing the respect of state lawmakers. They don’t have to like KU, its individual administrators, its policies, whether it is looked upon as a nest of liberals or other facets of the school, but they should respect the university and its importance to the state.

As Kansas’ flagship institution, KU plays a critical role in the state and, as such, it should merit the respect and support of legislators, the governor and the people of Kansas.

At one time, this was indeed the case, but times, conditions and individuals have changed and it’s not the same picture now.

University leaders need to tone down mannerisms that suggest arrogance, elitism or superiority relative to the other state-aided universities, and they need to do a far better job of telling the university’s story and showing its importance to the state.

Likewise, there must be far more attention given to the importance and role of those appointed to the Board of Regents. The regents need to have more knowledge of what is happening at the various campuses and should demonstrate the backbone and courage to take action when needed. It’s surprising the regents are not blind-sided more often because they are spoon-fed information about the schools by the chancellor, presidents and provosts. They need better sources of unbiased information and better first-hand knowledge of events and potential trouble spots on each campus.

The situation in Missouri should serve as a timely and powerful wake-up call for all those interested in the welfare, growth and excellence of KU.

There is no justification for complacency. Rather, the focus should be on corrective, positive and genuine actions.