May 28, 2023

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Critical Discussion

Thursday afternoon members of the Kansas University Faculty Senate will discuss whether they have confidence in their chancellor and provost.

Longtime observers of KU cannot remember the last time such a discussion occurred by faculty senate members. This discussion, initiated by the most important body of KU teachers, those who are in the business of teaching, should send a loud and strong signal and alarm, that things are not right on Mt. Oread.

The situation has been boiling for some time, actually since the day Dr. Doug Girod was named chancellor, as the faculty, as well as a large percentage of alumni, questioned whether Girod was the right individual to lead the school.

Chances are Girod and provost Bichelmeyer will escape the no confidence discussion but there are those among the senate who believe the situation is so serious changes must be made.
They claim the University is being run based on money and politics and that nothing is likely to change even because of the discussion. Also, there is widespread concern university officials “get rid of people who differ” with the administration.

According to a senior faculty member, “a possible vote would be like an impeachment, a lack of confidence that the chancellor and provost are able to provide the leadership if the University is to grow and excel.”

Again, this is rare for KU. It’s probably a shock to most alumni and friends as they do not hear, nor are they told about what is going on on Mt. Oread.

Several weeks ago this writer wrote to a senior Kansas University Endowment Association official expressing concern the Association is planning another major capital campaign. The timing seems wrong for such an effort.

The letter stated, “I’m also extremely concerned about the upcoming capital campaign. I can’t imagine a more challenging time: sharp divisions on the campus among faculty and administration; poor faculty morale; persistent questioning relative to the leadership by the chancellor; the majority of the public growing increasingly concerned and angry about what students are being taught at the college and pre-college levels; parents shocked when told by their students/children how they are afraid to speak up in class relative to political concerns; a state legislative body that is not impressed by KU’s performance in many areas (likewise relative in Kansas State’s leadership); the highly emotional, almost combative and combustible political/social factions on the campus and among alumni; and, the questionable economic health of the nation and state, and what’s likely to happen (taxes, etc.) under the Biden administration.”

I noted this was an extremely negative outlook, but I could write another paragraph just as complimentary about good things associated with KU.

This is a tough, very tough time to be a chancellor. But it also provides an opportunity for talented, visionary, courageous individuals in leadership positions to demonstrate what true leadership can accomplish.

Some years ago this writer had the privilege of serving on a board with Dr. Frank Rhodes, then president of Cornell University. He was considered one of the nation’s top five university presidents/chancellors.

He died last year and among the tremendous number of remembrances of Rhodes from his obituary in the New York Times and the funeral home’s obituary are the following:

• At his inauguration ceremony “he stressed four ‘reaffirmations’ necessary to secure a healthy future for the university: the power of reason; the strength of community; the priority of research and teaching; and the importance of wider partnership beyond the campus.”

• Rhodes stressed “the importance of the role of teaching and instituted a policy that made evaluation of teaching an essential part of tenure review.”

• One more remembrance: “Revered for his eloquence, wisdom, and scholarship, he was also beloved for his ability to connect at a most genuine and uplifting level with generations of faculty and staff, students and alumni. His extraordinary ability to remember names derived from his deep conviction that everyone was worthy of being remembered and treated with grace and kindness.”

These remembrances and descriptions of Rhodes describe an exceptional chancellor/president.

Those chosen to serve on selection committees to identify and find potential leaders, particularly in higher education, should use the record of Frank Rhodes as a guideline.
When has KU had a chancellor that merited such remembrances?

Why shouldn’t those serving on committees for senior KU positions, or those serving as Regents who make the final decisions, set high standards and expect the best, not the second best?
KU used to be a special state-aided university. It enjoyed a proud record and a tremendously loyal body of alumni and friends. Unfortunately, it has slipped over the past 15 to 20 years. Others have slipped but, there are those that have improved their national rankings.

Can, or will KU turn things around? It won’t happen without inspirational and visionary leadership.

Thursday’s discussion by KU faculty members will send a strong message. The big question is, will the discussion make any difference? Under current circumstances…current leadership or new leadership, the current Board of Regents, fiscal constraints, state legislators, public attitude, politics…what can be done to chart a new course for excellence and enthusiasm?

A split, divided campus cannot get the job done.