KU chancellor talks economic growth, town-gown relations with Lawrence business leaders

University of Kansas chancellor Dr. Douglas Girod speaks to those gathered for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce Membership Luncheon on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2018 at Maceli's, 1031 New Hampshire Street. Girod addressed various areas of his focus for improving the university and its relationship to the business community.

Chancellor Douglas Girod has a vision for the University of Kansas, and he’s calling upon Lawrence business leaders to help make it happen.

Girod spoke about the university’s future, including what he sees as KU’s symbiotic relationship with business entities across the state, during the Lawrence chamber of commerce’s annual membership luncheon Wednesday at Maceli’s banquet hall.

In his tenure as chancellor, Girod said he’d focus primarily on improving the student experience, statewide outreach efforts and KU’s research opportunities — all of which, he said, have the potential to “benefit the entire state of Kansas.”

“It’s just not everybody knows that,” Girod told the crowd of about 200 Chamber members. “So, we need to focus on Liberal being just as concerned about the success of KU as this chamber because, frankly, we are as important to Liberal as we are to this chamber.”

Many don’t realize KU is the largest employer in Kansas after state government, Girod said. Add in the University of Kansas Health System, he said, and “that’s a powerful statement.”

“It really does make a difference in the economic engine,” he said. “That’s not even talking about the 6,000 graduates that we put out into the workforce every year, or the startup companies.”

KU has 38 active startups, and, as of December 2016, 28 were located in Kansas.

The last several years haven’t been kind to public universities, Girod said, along with “almost every other state agency.” KU’s state funding has been slashed 40 percent from 2000 to 2016, leading to layoffs, slimmed-down operational budgets and, perhaps most notably, tuition hikes.

One of the university’s biggest priorities in the years ahead, Girod said, will be working to restore those cuts.

But Girod said he’s also optimistic about KU’s financial future. He said that’s partially thanks to former Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, who led KU to record-high research funding in her eight-year tenure.

Gray-Little, who retired in June, also helmed the university through a record-setting $1.66 billion fundraising campaign, in addition to overseeing 50 capital improvement projects on campus totaling $700 million.

The KU Cancer Center’s efforts to earn the much-coveted National Cancer Institute cancer center designation, Girod said, generated more than 4,000 jobs. Construction projects in KU’s Central District have created 700 jobs for the Lawrence community so far, he said.

Bringing Amazon to the state would create even more. Girod said the university is “working very closely” with state officials in both Kansas and Missouri on making the region an attractive prospect for Amazon leaders in search of a second headquarters location.

“Fifty-thousand jobs is nothing to sneeze at when you look at it from an economic growth perspective,” Girod said.

Another big project on his list: transforming KU football into a moneymaker for the university. Game attendance at KU’s Memorial Stadium has flatlined in recent years, along with the team’s win-loss record. “We’ve got a little work to do there, too,” Girod acknowledged.

He wants Lawrence’s business leaders to help in those endeavors. If KU football succeeds, Girod said, so too will the local economy.

“Just think economically what it would mean for this community if we could pack that stadium with 40- or 50,000 people for every home game, and just the sheer economics of that to this community,” Girod said.

Less than a week ago, KU announced its $350 million campaign to renovate athletics facilities over the next several years, with football set to receive the bulk of the upgrades.

“When you think about it, basketball’s incredible, but basketball’s a two-hour event and then you have to rush everybody out. Football, whether you like it or not, is an all-day affair,” he said, eliciting laughs from the audience. “Or even an all-night affair.”