May 28, 2023

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How Good is KU?

How good is the University of Kansas? It enjoys a proud record; there have been several truly outstanding chancellors whose vision and national leadership helped build and propel the school to greater levels of excellence and recognition; there are individual schools or departments within the university which are “world class”; and, at times the university has been recognized by national ranking organizations as a better than average institution.

The school enjoys an enthusiastic and active alumni association and an effective endowment association that raises private fiscal support for the school.

Over the years many proud Jayhawks have indicated their pride and support of KU by saying KU is “the Harvard on the Kaw.” Some recent promotion materials sent out from KU suggest KU is a “world class” school.

It’s good to have loyal supporters but at some point it’s important for those interested and supportive of the school to realize times, conditions and competition change and KU today is a different school than many alumni and friends remember of past times on Mt Oread. KU is not a “world class” school.

Several examples:

The Association of American Universities is recognized as one of the most prestigious organizations recognizing academic and research excellence. KU became a member in 1909. For years membership was limited to a small number and was looked upon as a very special badge of honor. Times started changing, two schools were dropped from membership, and KU, as well as several other schools, were notified they were on thin ice relative to their continued membership. This came as a shock to KU officials and they have tried to improve various facets within the school to merit its continued membership.

It would be a severe shock, as well as a major loss, for KU if it was dropped from the AAU.

U.S. News & World Report has an annual report ranking American universities and a few years ago KU reached as high as the 30s. Today, it has slipped to a much lower ranking.

A few months ago the Wall Street Journal published a ranking of 800 American colleges and universities, public and private. KU was ranked 238th out of 800. This is not a “Harvard on the Kaw” ranking. This study focused on how well a college will prepare students for life after graduation. The overall ranking is based on 15 factors across four main categories: 40 percent of each school’s overall score comes from student outcomes, including measures of graduate salaries and debt burdens; 30 percent from the school’s academic resources; 20 percent from how well it engages its students; and 10 percent from its diversity.

These rankings were factored into roughly 174,000 responses from student survey questions including whether they feel inspired and motivated by their classmates, whether they think their college is worth what they and their families are paying, and if they’d choose the same school if they had to start all over again.

Granted, surveys can be tilted one way or another, emphasizing various elements or yardsticks relative to colleges and/or universities.

However, there’s no denying KU has slipped in its national standings.

Other schools which have been lower than KU in past surveys now top Kansas. Have they gotten better or has KU slipped and not held its own against the competition?

KU remains the “flagship” academic school of Kansas but no longer holds the position it used to enjoy in the Big Eight conference schools. Adding Texas schools to form the Big 12 has pushed KU to a lower ranking.

Is KU destined to remain in this position? Is there the desire to improve KU’s national rankings: What do alumni think about the lower rankings? How about the regents? What difference do lower rankings have on the quality and morale on the campus? How do rankings affect attracting new faculty? Currently KU is losing students, as are other schools. What role do national rankings play in the decisions of students, their parents and high school advisors to attend one school or another?

According to recent news stories, a large KU dormitory will not be refurbished due to fewer students; complete academic departments or programs are being discontinued and the school is losing talented faculty members.

KU officials claim they will probably have to raise student tuition costs if state legislators do not approve significant increases in state fiscal support for KU. This raises the question, can Kansas afford supporting seven state-aided schools?

Put the various national rankings aside. KU has a number of excellent programs. Some probably merit “world class” distinction and others good and some probably so-so.

Intercollegiate sports play a significant role in generating school pride and enthusiasm, KU traditionally has one of the nation’s top college basketball teams and one of the country’s worst major college football teams.

Currently, growing numbers of alumni and friends wonder what is going on on Mt. Oread. They more than wonder….they are concerned and worried.

Something needs to be done to trigger a revival that would move KU into the forefront as a visionary, exciting university for students and faculty. Currently, KU seems almost listless and/or unable to regain the excitement and enthusiasm that used to be a hallmark of the school.

KU has been spinning its wheels for the past 20 years in a gradually lowering glide path. Contrast this with the KU Hospital in Kansas City. The hospital was so bad 25 years ago that officials faced three alternatives: close the hospital, try to sell it, or kick ass and transform it into one of the nation’s best teaching hospitals.

Today the KU Hospital is one of the nation’s top teaching hospitals. The secret….leadership, discipline, drive, commitment, vision and excellence at all levels.

Shouldn’t this be the goal of those interested in the welfare and future of KU Mt. Oread? Alumni and friends, faculty, students, the public, state legislators, regents and those with the financial means to be supportive of the school….all need to get involved and play a powerful and effective role in making KU a better school.

It must be a team approach, has to be. No one by himself or herself can turn the institution around on a path to leadership and excellence. However, there is one critical essential IF there is a realistic chance to shift the school into a new more effective level of excellence. It must have leadership that inspires, motivates and is contagious.

Regents and those serving on search and selection committees to fill KU positions have done a poor job in identifying and landing top prospects. Might as well acknowledge this failure rather than dodge the situation.

Kansas governors must seek the very best individuals to serve on the Board of Regents. Political payoffs are short changing Kansas’ higher education system as well as the state. Those in senior positions at KU responsible for filling vacancies should always be sensitive to diversity but aim for the very best individuals in every position.

It’s a team project with a lot of players but it must have leadership by an individual who merits the respect and complete support of all the players.

Are KU alumni and friends, students, teachers, legislators, regents, parents, taxpayers, those who have the fiscal means to be of great help, Lawrence townspeople and city officials — everyone — do they have the passion, vision and drive to take KU to a higher level of excellence?

Or, are they satisfied to coast along as the school settles into a comfortable middle-of-the-road classification?