September 25, 2023

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Leadership Needed

The headlines have been brutal:

• “Faculty, students and staff blast leadership”
• “KU to eliminate more than 150 jobs, lay off 30 people”
• “Despite record donation, KU Athletics loses $5 million in 2018”
• “Leaders say Kansas Athletics must focus on growing revenues, not cutting expenses”

It’s not a good situation and those who want to suggest everything is well and hunky-dory at KU are whistling in the dark.

For numerous reasons, KU was spinning its wheels during the last four or five years of the Hemenway chancellorship and seemed stalled during the eight years of Gray-Little’s leadership. Yes, record amounts of private fiscal support were recorded during Gray-Little’s time in Strong Hall but behind this favorable veneer there wasn’t the vision, leadership and enthusiasm needed if the school was to grow in excellence and national stature.

The positive and effective Neeli Bendapudi had led a highly successful finance drive that raised more than $60 million for a new school of business building. She had just moved into her offices when her fellow deans asked and pressured her to be a nominee for the empty provost office. She was not enthusiastic about seeking the job but she was selected and did an excellent job which really called for her to oversee the entire “inside” of the campus operation with the chancellor focusing on the outside and off-campus voice and image of the school.

Within a short time Gray-Little announced plans to retire and again, Bendapudi was asked to become a candidate for the leadership position.

A search committee was formed to recruit and eventually recommend individuals to the Board of Regents as their nominees for the job. David Dillon, a highly respected and successful business executive and a KU graduate, headed the search committee and Bendapudi and KU Medical School Dean Doug Girod were two finalists.

The public was told the names were to be given to the Regents in no order of preference.

Girod was lauded by those who knew him from his leadership at the Medical School and his record as a surgeon. Many of his admirers referred to him as a “rock star.” Those who knew Bendapudi and had seen her lead the School of Business and as Provost were equally high and complimentary of her.

Dillon, who now heads the KU Endowment Association, was asked to visit about the search process with the Regents but there is no public record of what he may have said about the final selection nor is there a public record of how the Regents voted. Likewise, there is no record of how those on the search committee voted.

All search committee members and Regents have remained tight-lipped on the entire selection process.

This review is noted only because the Regents’ decision to hire Girod immediately divided and ignited negative, as well as positive, reactions among faculty, alumni and friends of the university. And, unfortunately, opened up a behind-the-scenes, underground guessing game about how and why Girod was picked over Bendapudi which continues today.

Regardless, this is water over the dam and is not helping build and strengthen the university.

Girod is a good man with a good record at the Medical Center. Now he is calling the shots for the entire university on Mt. Oread and in Kansas City. Hopefully, he will prove to be an excellent chancellor.

No matter who might be the KU chancellor at this time, and with the legacies of the two previous chancellors, he or she was sure to face many tough challenges: The questioning of cynical faculty; questionable fiscal support from state legislators; shaky enrollment numbers and less than favorable forecasts relative to the future numbers of potential Kansas high school graduates who might consider coming to KU; the looming obligation to pay off the huge price tag to build the new and costly inner campus; the football and athletics department merry-go-round with the sure to come powerful appeals for greater private fiscal support; higher ticket prices and greater numbers of employees; and, a Board of Regents that really is not on top of what is going on at the many campuses they are supposed to oversee.

KU is a good state-aided university with a proud history and a number of excellent leaders, national and world recognition for many programs, distinguished faculty and a powerful and loyal body of alumni.

Nevertheless, it can and should be an even more successful and highly recognized school. This will demand far more enlightened and knowledgeable leadership from the Regents. Too often Regents are selected as political pay-offs rather than for their excellence, experience and knowledge of what is going on at the campuses.

Likewise visionary, courageous, inspiring leadership is essential in the chancellor’s office to stimulate and rally faculty and to justify enthusiastic support from state legislators. No chancellor is likely to enjoy universal support from the lawmakers but they should respect the chancellor for his or her role and the importance of higher education for the good of the state. This has been lacking in recent years.

Being a chancellor in today’s society and environment is a tough job. But it is a terribly important job if universities are to continue to play the important roles they have filled in past years.

But, times change.

Who knows how many high school graduates, or their parents, will continue to think a college education and degree are necessary and a high priority? How many high school students will actually think it necessary to live “on campus” rather than fulfill their academic requirements via distant learning devices? Who will be able to afford the costs of a four to six years on campus education? Will KU continue to be a top choice by Kansas high schoolers?

Whose role is it to sell the importance of a college education and the benefits of an on-campus experience? Chancellors, parents, high school counselors, industry leaders or possibly even athletic coaches?

What’s the future of KU and its role and importance in the future of Lawrence and Kansas? The level of true, inspiring leadership by the chancellor will play the critical role with the overall university community as well as state legislators, parents and taxpayers.

The potential is great but it’s going to take a rebirth of the enthusiasm, excitement and pride that used to be the hallmark of KU.