The future direction of KU and how it may change Lawrence’s future; university rolling out new strategic plan
photo by: Nick Krug
A random student at a recent University of Kansas job fair unwittingly said a lot about the future of KU and its Lawrence campus.
The student was inquiring about an internship when she was asked what level she was at in her education at KU. By years, she said, she is a sophomore. By credit hours, she is a senior.
This journalism student could compress her entire college career — and thus her time in Lawrence — down to approximately two years, if she so chooses.
How often is that scenario — aided by high school students able to take college courses through their schools or online — going to play out in the future?
“A lot, honestly,” KU Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer said when told the story.
How much might that change Lawrence? A lot, perhaps.
Much will depend on how KU leaders craft and implement a new strategic plan, called Jayhawks Rising, that is meant to make KU more competitive and prosperous for decades to come.
Bichelmeyer, who began as provost in February 2020 just days before the university largely closed due to the pandemic, is tasked with getting that strategic plan right and getting it in place. An alumna of the university, Bichelmeyer believes KU has found itself in a moment of need for some sharp strategic thinking.
“I think we have had strategies that, perhaps, didn’t fully explore the competitive landscape, and the changing nature of the higher education experience,” Bichelmeyer said in an interview with the Journal-World.
There are some numbers that back that up. From 2017 to 2021, enrollment on the Lawrence campus has fallen by about 5% or by 1,161 students, according to university data. Certainly, KU has not been alone in experiencing enrollment declines. But also true is that there are universities that have figured out the changing nature of higher education and have capitalized with increased enrollments.
The broader Lawrence community has a lot of reasons to root for KU to be one of those institutions. If you make a conservative assumption that every KU student spends $30,000 a year in tuition, books, room, board and other incidentals in the Lawrence community, then every time KU’s enrollment declines by 1,000 students, the community sees a $30 million reduction of money entering its economy. Part of that $30 million funds thousands of jobs in industries such as apartments, bars, restaurants, retailers and many more. That means the true impact of the lost $30 million is much greater due to the ripple effect of spent money, which is difficult to quantify but no less real.
The good news is that Bichelmeyer believes that KU can get back to its recent highs in enrollment of nearly 25,000 students, which in turn would bring tens of millions of new dollars into the Lawrence economy.
“For us to find 24,000 to 25,000 students who can afford to be on this campus, we can do it,” Bichelmeyer said. “We can do it. They are out there. We just have to find them.”
The bad news is, Bichelmeyer certainly isn’t guaranteeing it. She rather quickly will note that getting much above that 25,000 mark may be unrealistic given the demographic challenges of there being fewer college-age people, especially in Kansas.
When pressed on whether she thinks getting to the 24,000 to 25,000 level of students is truly possible given the challenges of demographics and competition, she acknowledges the uncertainty behind the proposition.
“I think we should sure have a strategy and try,” she said.
photo by: Mike Yoder
The strategy is taking shape with the Jayhawks Rising plan. The document is not all about enrollment or finances. It is broad in scope, with three overarching categories: student success, healthy and vibrant communities and research and discovery.
But strategic plans, at their heart, really are about directions. In talking with Bichelmeyer, thoughts on two directions emerge. One is a direction you will never find on an actual compass, but the other you very much would — east.
That’s the direction you look to find Kansas City.
KU already is heavily invested in Kansas City, Kan. with the KU medical school’s growing campus located in the community. But the medical center is undergoing its own planning, while the plan Bichelmeyer is tasked with implementing is focused on KU’s other campuses. That includes the Edwards Campus in prosperous Johnson County.
KU leaders are focusing more on Kansas City, even to the point of subtle changes in the “elevator speech” officials often give about the university. For decades, a standard line in such talks is about how KU is focused on “meeting the needs of Kansas.” Now, you are likely to hear an extra phrase tacked onto that statement: “and the needs of Kansas City.”
Bichelmeyer believes the Edwards Campus can be a site of growth for KU. Indeed, it already has been. During the time period when the Lawrence campus saw its enrollment decline by about 5%, the Edwards Campus had enrollment growth of 18%.
But the Edwards Campus still makes up a pretty small amount of KU’s overall enrollment, with a head count of 1,450 students in the fall 2021 semester. Bichelmeyer didn’t offer any projections of how large enrollment may become at Edwards, but she said KU has to think differently about how to use the campus.
“As I hear lore and legend here, there have been times that we’ve had conversations where we have kept programming from being on the Edwards Campus because we thought if we didn’t have it there, students would just naturally show up here (in Lawrence),” Bichelmeyer said. “And that is not how students work.”
If programs that traditionally have been taught on the Lawrence campus get shifted to the Edwards Campus, that could make it difficult to grow the number of students on the Lawrence campus.
Bichelmeyer, though, said she believes KU’s efforts at Edwards will be “additive,” rather than a threat to the role of the Lawrence campus. The idea isn’t for KU to become a Kansas City-centric university.
“We have to look at (the Lawrence campus) and know that this is the hub,” Bichelmeyer said. “This is the engine that drives the educational experience that KU is able to provide, and Mt. Oread and Lawrence, Kansas always will be the engine that drives the educational experience that the University of Kansas can provide.”
“Even as I say that, I know that probably my colleagues at the KU Med Center might take exception to that point,” she said.
In other words, there is a range of issues on the Kansas City topic, depending on whether you are talking to someone connected with KU proper or the medical center.
What is clear is that Bichelmeyer believes Kansas City can be a real benefit to KU’s efforts in Lawrence. As an experienced university administrator — she’s served in leadership roles at the University of Missouri Kansas City and at Indiana University — she’s seen enough college towns to know that Lawrence has a unique attribute. It is just the right distance away from a major metropolitan area.
“I’ve been in the beautiful college town of Bloomington, Indiana,” she said. “I’ve seen that there are other beautiful college towns around. They are relatively isolated. We are a beautiful college town that is on the edge of a thriving metropolitan area. And we have in no way really taken advantage of the locations we have …”
Bichelmeyer on several occasions mentioned the need for KU to get more involved in the business of events, conventions and conferences. She talked more about those events happening in Lawrence rather than Kansas City.
“I chose Lawrence, Kansas, because I was at Girls State,” Bichelmeyer said referring back to how her decision to attend KU was influenced by the time she spent at a KU-hosted student government event. “As a high school student, I was like ‘wow, this is a beautiful place. I want to be here more.’ We have to get more of those events, and that is truly a symbiotic partnership between KU and Lawrence.”
East, however, is not the only direction KU is looking. The other is whatever direction you find the online world. Bichelmeyer once was the founding director of Indiana University’s online education program. When the Internet became more about social media and the ability to do “many-to-many communication,” Bichelmeyer said it became clear to her that higher education was in position for a major disruption.
“As soon as you can engage people in multiple conversations and dialogues and platforms, you have to start asking questions about how do you best deliver education,” she said.
However, even when she was the online guru at Indiana University, she never contended online education was the “silver bullet” for all the challenges facing higher education. At its core, Bichelmeyer said she believes higher education is still part of the “experience sector.”
“Higher education is still an experience,” Bichelmeyer said. “It is a community.”
But while online education can’t be a silver bullet for a university, no institution can afford for its online programs to be a dud either. Bichelmeyer said KU has a lot of room to improve its online strategy.
“It is the least exploited strategy at KU, to this point in time,” Bichelmeyer said. “We don’t have a brand.”
That’s changing. As the Journal-World reported last month, KU has hired a new vice provost to lead Jayhawk Global, which will be the brand under which KU delivers a growing number of online programs.
Bichelmeyer believes the Jayhawk — the actual Jayhawk — can be very helpful in developing KU into a strong online education presence. She said the research shows that the Jayhawk mascot is much more widely recognized than the average college mascot. That’s an advantage in a sector like online education, where marketing and branding are highly important.
It also is a sector that requires you to think in competitive terms. That may be a huge benefit to KU as well. In the past, Bichelmeyer said KU has perhaps done some things “that didn’t help ourselves.”
“We didn’t ask, for example, why some of the flagship institutions in surrounding states were pulling students out of Kansas,” she said.
Now, KU is asking a lot of questions, Bichelmeyer said. KU has been working on the Jayhawks Rising strategic plan for more than a year, and the university is now entering what it considers the implementation stage of the plan that has an overall vision “to be an exceptional learning community that lifts each member and advances society.”
In other words, KU is now entering the “try” part. Remember what Bichelmeyer said earlier: “We should sure have a strategy and try.”
Jayhawks Rising is the official strategy for the university, but it isn’t the only one that guides Bichelmeyer. In her office is an image of a log cabin in rural eastern Douglas County in the 1800s with an empty Mt. Oread in the background. Her father’s parents and grandparents emigrated from Germany to the area near Eudora during that time period.
Such a journey has a way of creating its own version of strategic thinking, and it is one that resonates with Bichelmeyer today.
”As my parents said, opportunity is most often disguised as hard work,” Bichelmeyer said. “I walked in the door saying that KU is a massive opportunity, and I continue to believe that KU is a massive opportunity.”
KU’s strategic plan, Jayhawks Rising, has 13 objectives. Here’s a look at the broad objectives, plus a few actions steps that have begun to develop.
• Increase enrollment. KU is developing a “pricing/discount strategy” that could involve offering in-state tuition to residents of select areas outside the state.
• Improve rates of student retention, engagement and satisfaction.
• Improve student placement rates and lower student debt levels.
• Ensure quality of academic programs.
• Strengthen service to local and global communities.
• Improve diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. KU is working to embed “equity advisers” in every academic and administrative unit on campus.
• Increase workplace satisfaction. KU is commissioning a comprehensive market study of wages and salaries.
• Ensure stewardship of the institution. Work in this area includes the creation of a five-year financial plan, which is scheduled to be released in the coming days.
• Improve health and wellness.
• Grow KU research.
• Expand the impact of KU research in Kansas and beyond.
• Promote innovation and entrepreneurship.
• Recruit, retain and recognize top researchers.