September 25, 2023

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Where’s the Leadership?

What will it take for Kansas University to regain the excitement, enthusiasm, vision and national recognition for its academic excellence that used to be its hallmark years ago?

KU was looked to as a shooting star among state-aided public universities with new ideas, new programs, great pride in the school and its accomplishments, strong and inspiring leadership and a growing group of faculty all-stars.

It started in the 1950’s with the truly exceptional leadership and vision of the late Franklin Murphy followed by the excellent administration under Clarke Wescoe. Both Murphy and Wescoe moved to Lawrence and KU after successful leadership careers at the KU Medical School in Kansas City. Murphy and Wescoe were great for the university, for Lawrence and the state as they were personally involved in local and state programs and issues in addition to building the university into a leadership position.

The next years at KU were okay but nothing too great. Then came a Nebraska native and former president of the University of West Virginia, Gene Budig, who tried to get KU back on track with his emphasis on telling a positive KU story and stressing the importance of the school earning and meriting national rankings.

These were the days when some at KU claimed national rankings were not that important and didn’t mean much to prospective students, their parents, high school guidance counselors, prospective faculty members, alumni, state legislators and fiscal donors. What a mistake.

Budig was followed by Bob Hemenway and Bernadette Gray-Little, both nice people but neither of whom could be described as dynamic, visionary and stimulating leaders.

Now former KU Medical Center executive, Doug Girod, is entering his third year as KU’s leader. Will he be able to right the ship, get KU out of its rut and stop the school’s slide?

Like Hemenway and Gray-Little, Girod is a good, very likable individual who was called an all-star for his work at KUMC. Unfortunately, growing numbers of Mt. Oread campus faculty and students are questioning whether Girod has the leadership skills and vision to drive and guide the school to higher levels of academic excellence.

There is no single answer to the question asked at the beginning of this piece but something has to be done, quickly, if KU is to become a better school. Above all there must be stimulating and courageous leadership.

Can Girod do it? He will need help.

He needs, the state needs and the other Regents schools need a strong, highly respected Board of Regents. In recent years Kansas governors have played the game of political correctness in their appointments of nice men and women to this important body. However, few of these appointees have the records of achievement and leadership which merit the respect of the public, state legislators and university leaders.

Higher education in Kansas, particularly KU, has been severely handicapped by short-sighted individuals serving as regents. Too many times they are unaware of what is going on at the various campuses they are supposed to oversee. They like having their names on stationery and they enjoy being invited to sit with a chancellor or president for a football or basketball game but they are not active, powerful spokespersons for higher ed.

Likewise the state needs state legislators who recognize the necessity of an excellent system of higher education if the state is to grow and become increasingly attractive to new residents, retain current residents and attract new industry and business.

A strong, effective, highly respected KU chancellor, leader of the state’s flagship academic institution, could and would play a critical role in educating and motivating state legislators relative to the role and importance of proper state funding for higher education at all Regents schools, not just KU.

KU alumni and friends have been generous in their fiscal support for KU but do they pay enough attention to how their monies are spent? There is increasingly public concern throughout the country about what is being taught on college campuses, including what’s going on on Mt. Oread. KU Endowment enjoyed a record year of giving this past year but will that continue with growing concerns about the political teaching and bias of professors and questionable leadership in Strong Hall?

KU enjoys a strong, active alumni base whose members are quick to visit and tell friends about their happy days on Mt. Oread and how good the school is. But, how much do they really know about the school? They talk about KU being known, or at least used to be referred to as “The Harvard on the Kaw” but what do they say today about KU’s national rankings?

A recent study and survey by the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education places KU at 238th among 500 public and private schools. Among the Big 12 conference schools the study places Texas as #1 (61 nationally), followed by TCU (65), Baylor (167), Oklahoma (205), KU (238), Iowa State (287) and Oklahoma State (373). Kansas State, Texas Tech and West Virginia are ranked somewhere between 401 and 500.

The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education study breaks down the country’s schools in a variety of classifications or categories…The Top Overall 10, Top Schools for Resources, Top Schools for Student Outcomes, Top Schools for Engagement, Top Schools for Environment, The Best Values and the Best Large and Small schools. A total of 800 colleges were in the study with the 500 to 800 listed on the study’s website. No Big 12 schools made any of the top 10 categories.

Some will say these rankings mean little and that KU is still a far better school than 238th out of 500, but why shouldn’t KU fans and friends want to know why the school didn’t get a better ranking?

Again, leadership plays a role, a big role.

Consider, for example, what happened at Kansas State University. Thirty years ago the school was failing and falling fast. Enrollment numbers were dropping to a dangerous low level, faculty and student morale was poor, private giving was bad, the so called “purple pride” was low, the football team was called the worst among major universities and there was a chance KSU might be kicked out of the conference.

A little known Jon Wefald (little known in Kansas at that time but well known in Minnesota) was hired and in a matter of 20 years turned the school around. He actually saved the school with major increases in student enrollment, better students, a much higher profile in Kansas among alumni and friends and state legislators, school pride was restored, the faculty was elevated, the football team won national rankings, new buildings sprouted up, private giving increased and Manhattan and the entire state benefited by Wefald’s leadership.

The same thing happened at Fort Hays State under the leadership of Ed Hammond.

A couple of other concerns: In several instances, perhaps a number of times, those on KU’s search and selection committees have failed to aim high and take advantage of an opening to hire an outstanding individual. Is it a matter of not offering enough money, concerns the individual may have about the school and its future, too much emphasis on being politically correct or other reasons? Too many highly talented individuals have left KU in recent years.

Another important matter is the need for better relations between the city and the university, between Lawrence City Hall and Strong Hall. Unfortunately, Lawrence has had weak city government in recent years and rightfully earned the reputation of being an extremely difficult city for builders, entrepreneurs, new business and new industry.
Maybe Lawrence’s new city manager will be able to help turn things around but he will have to have a visionary city commission which merits the respect of the citizenry to have any chance of success. Do the upcoming city commission elections provide any reason for optimism?

The apparent commitment by three of the five city commissioners to have Lawrence become a “sanctuary city” certainly doesn’t help the city’s state or national reputation.

The current situation at both the University and the City is frustrating for thousands as the past history of the city and the university is excellent. But for some reason there has been a significant slowdown, a complacency or lack of excitement. There is little evidence the city and/or the university are determined to do everything possible to make Lawrence one of the nation’s finest university cities.

Instead, as one highly successful Lawrence businessman once said, “The city should put up large road signs on the various entrances to Lawrence saying ‘Welcome to Lawrence, Home of the Little Hitters’”.

Lawrence enjoys so many assets and past history shows KU and the city can be national leaders. Where’s the desire, leadership and vision necessary to regain this winning environment where everyone….citizens, students, the city, the university and the state all are winners?