September 25, 2023

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A Study by Outsiders

What does is say about the state of affairs at Kansas University when the chancellor asks the KU Endowment Association to hand over $710,000 to pay for a study to tell the chancellor the best way to run the university?

Maybe this is a bit harsh but this is what is going on today on Mt. Oread.

A $710,000, no bid, nine month contract was signed by KU officials with a Maryland company named rpk GROUP to tell KU officials how to run this Kansas school more effectively and efficiently.

KUEA officials approved the request so apparently they too must have had some questions about the school’s operation and thought it would be a good idea to get an outsider’s opinion and recommendations. It’s assumed a chancellor and/or president of a university has the experience, skills and background, along with the help and advice of his or her top officials, to devise the best possible operations blueprint for the institution.

Times change, however, and maybe KU needs extra help. It would be interesting to know how past chancellors such as Murphy, Wescoe, Dykes and Budig would have handled the present situation in higher education and at KU.

This also raises the question of the role of those serving on the Kansas Board of Regents. These individuals have the responsibility of overseeing the operations of the state-assisted universities. Are they supposed to buy into the recommendations of rpk GROUP in how KU is to be organized and run?

The study is focusing its overview and examination on four general areas:

• Academic portfolio and efficiency/productivity analysis
• Market scan and analysis
• Finance and budget review
• Administrative service review

This calls for a close examination of KU’s “economic engines”; developing a framework for KU to get a good return on its “investment lens”; a check on student success and the net review of each academic program in undergraduate, graduate and post-professional units; an analysis of current and prospective student markets and where to target student recruitment; how to operate the University at “current levels of service” at lower costs; and, is there too much duplication of efforts in the administrative field.

It all sounds good and perhaps is needed. However, two leading, senior faculty members, the president of KU’s Faculty Senate and the president of the University Senate, both raise serious concerns about the manner in which the administration developed the study and a lack of communication and transparency with the faculty. They claim their requests for more information have fallen on “deaf ears” and consequently there are growing rumors among the faculty about the ultimate true goals for commissioning such a study.

This concern, mistrust and suspicion relative to a study on how to be more efficient and save money, along with the recent buy outs of faculty and layoffs of university personnel, all combine to generate a very nervous faculty that already is growing angrier about the lack of openness by administrative officials.

What’s happened to the old fashion idea of a chancellor and his or her top advisors and deans being able to figure out the best plan for running the school, develop excellent policies, determine how to attract and hire the best possible faculty, attract good students and sell this package to alumni and friends, private donors, students, faculty and state legislators?

On the other hand, has higher education become so challenging, complicated, costly and difficult to please everyone that university administrators now must seek the costly services of specialists to design the best operations blueprint for a specific school if they are to have a reasonably successful tenure?

Maybe some will say hiring an outside firm in Maryland to design an operations blueprint for a state university a thousand miles away is the best way to make sure your university is covering all bases.

These days chancellors have to be careful to keep from offending anyone. Could it be in the months and years to come that chancellors and presidents will be selected primarily on their personal traits, likeability and if they can make a good verbal and personal presentation, with the actual job of running the school handed over to a “how to run a university” company?
Similar to a head office operating a number of franchised schools scattered around the country.

Five, ten or twenty years from now will most state-aided colleges and universities pretty much look and operate the same way? They will have different team mascots and colors but otherwise it will be difficult to see much difference between state schools in every state?

Will there be relatively few colleges and universities who are truly “flagship” institutions with innovative ideas, superior research facilities and visionary leadership….attracting the best students and superior teachers and researchers?

Over the years KU has been recognized as an excellent state-aided university. It has been a leader and innovator in many areas and it has enjoyed a tremendously loyal faculty, many carrying the title of distinguished faculty, who have turned down attractive offers from other schools to remain in Lawrence and on Mt. Oread.

Can, or will this type of a record continue? Frankly, the school has stalled, or failed to maintain the excitement and enthusiasm that used to be a hallmark of the institution.

Is seeking ideas and advice from a detached “how to run a university” company the best way for KU to improve the odds for continued success? Or, is it possible those here in Kansas, those committed to making KU a true “flagship” institution, could get the job done?

Time will tell.