December 4, 2021

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Critical Crossroad

The University of Kansas is at a dangerous, critical crossroad.
The level of its excellence, in all areas – academic, athletic and in telling its story in an honest, challenging manner — is damned important. It can’t be overemphasized.
It’s important to the future of Lawrence, the State of Kansas and to nearby Kansas City. It’s important if the University excels and is justified in being called a “flagship institution”. Such a designation would play a major role in the development and growth of Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City.
However, if the University continues its slow but steady downward glide path that started in the last few years of the Hemenway chancellorship, continued through Bernadette Gray-Little’s years and now into the Doug Girod administration – it’s possible KU will be dropped or eliminated from the gold standard rankings of the American Association of Universities.
KU boosters are quick to label KU as a “flagship” school but this flagship actually applies to its standing among Kansas’ schools, not nationally. The consequences of lower national rankings will result in greater difficulties in attracting outstanding faculty and students; legislative support; losing faculty “all stars” to other universities, business or research facilities; and, less enthusiasm and generosity by alumni and friends.
It doesn’t have to happen. Alumni and friends of the University, students, generous financial supporters, state legislators, the governor, Kansas taxpayers, those serving as Regents….all should be taking a serious look at today’s KU and what needs to be done to shift the entire operation into a higher gear with the goal of achieving a true “flagship” designation.
Sure, the pandemic is causing major problems but KU’s problems/challenges didn’t start just this past year or so. They have been building since the late Hemenway years and little has been said or acknowledged.
Year after year at KU, it seems to be a case of the old saying….same old song, just with different verses.
The current embarrassing situation in the KU Athletics Department offers a good example. KU has one of the worst, if not the worst, football programs among major colleges and has had only four coaches with winning records in the past 102 years.
Obviously, something is wrong. A current case in point: Chancellor Girod fired the football coach and athletics director. He immediately named a search committee of alumni to oversee and serve as advisors to a professional search firm hired to find a new coach. Generally speaking, this is the same blueprint used for most every KU search exercise for a new coach or now new AD.
It’s interesting but even more disappointing to see three of the five individuals selected to serve on the new search committee were on similar committees for the selection of former KU Chancellor Gray-Little and former KU Athletics Director Sheahon Zenger. Those choices didn’t turn out well and is there any reason to believe the results will be better this time?
Kurt Watson, the new acting Athletics Director, was on the search committee for Gray-Little as was Linda Simms. Ray Evans, Jr. was on the search committee for Zenger. They all are nice people but they either were strong in their support of Gray-Little and Zenger, or, they were not strong enough to convince their fellow committee members that Gray-Little and Zenger were not right for the job. Other members of the new search group are Wayne Simien of Lawrence and John Ballard of Kansas City.
A check of past search committees for football coaches and ADs probably will show great similarities. Strong ties to the athletic department, probably some who have been generous in their fiscal support, deep ties to the KU Alumni Association and/or the KU Endowment Association, a former athlete and a highly visible person from Wichita and one from Kansas City.
Also, professional search firms who are paid a handsome fee to check their lists of unemployed coaches, or ADs, who are seeking a new job or, coaches who have been fired and deserve a second, third or fourth chance to prove their abilities or, a long shot of a highly successful coach who for some reason could be lured away to take a job at KU. However, what highly successful coach is eager to come to KU and take a chance of tarnishing his record in the win-loss record book?
Isn’t it time to investigate or consider changing the format, those doing the search and selection? Other schools seem to know how to attract good football coaches, why can’t KU?
Chancellor Girod said he will be in charge of the AD search but he is in a precarious position as members of the KU Faculty Senate, along with many other faculty members, are debating or considering issuing a “no confidence” verdict on him and Provost Bichelmeyer. Both are on thin ice. Some on the Faculty Senate favor the no confidence vote but are afraid of major repercussions.
Would a potential coach or potential AD want to make a commitment to KU and not be sure who their boss may be? What are his or her thoughts about major sports, salaries, deluxe dormitories, the importance of winning, raising private funds, improving facilities, etc.?
Athletics are important but academics are more important.
The list of problems or challenges in this area is long, and in many cases is another example of not having the necessary leadership to get better results.

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Those serving on the nine-member Board of Regents have the task of governing six universities, plus supervising 19 community colleges, six technical colleges and one municipal university. It is a tremendously important job. However, it is almost impossible for these nine men and women to have a good, accurate understanding of what is going on on the campuses of these schools. History shows Regents do not learn about troublesome situations until they grow into very serious problems. Regents are given specially designed tours of campuses, arrangements to meet with selected faculty and students, sit with the chancellor for a football or basketball game and then think they have an accurate, honest profile of the university and ability of the chancellor.
The terms of three Regents are ending this year. Governor Kelly has the opportunity to appoint three individuals to serve a maximum of two four-year terms. The Board needs members who are recognized for their personal and professional records, are committed to excellence, and have the public’s respect.
It’s not a position used to pay off political debts and IOUs or taking care of a friend of a friend.
How about considering the possibility of naming an outstanding professor as one of the new Regents? Someone who has firsthand experience and knows what is needed for a superior college level academic program?

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Being a university chancellor or president, particularly in today’s environment, is a difficult and challenging job. But, it’s a good and rewarding job in many ways.
Other current serious problems facing KU, in addition to the athletics department and Regents, include:

• The necessity for strong, powerful and visionary leadership in the chancellor’s office as well as other Strong Hall offices. KU should not settle for second best in any position.

• The divided and frustrated faculty is extremely serious and dangerous.

• The likelihood of the school facing a $75 million deficit at the end of the current school year.

• Will KU officials execute a plan to terminate some tenured professors?

• How to address falling enrollment numbers.

• How to deal with the growing concerns by many parents that their children are not receiving a sound education at KU, that professors and graduate teaching assistants are injecting partisan politics into the classroom, and students fear retaliation if they speak up and challenge the teacher.

• How to improve relations with state legislators and gain added fiscal support and/or halt further cuts.

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KU is a good school but it could, and should be, an even better university. However, to do so will require some bold, courageous and probably contentious moves. Will they be made?