September 25, 2023

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Who Will Steer the Ship?

One of these days, probably not too far away, a good number of Lawrence residents and friends of Kansas University are going to wake up some morning and ask, “What’s happening to our city and university? How did all of this come about”?

For years Lawrence and the University were looked upon as leaders and visionaries in their respective areas of activity. They were models for other cities and state universities to try to emulate.

However, something has happened and unfortunately they no longer enjoy this lofty admiration and respect. Some of this, particularly relative to KU, may be due to questionable fiscal support from the Kansas legislature. But, the major trouble for both KU and Lawrence is that too many individuals, too many friends and supporters of the city and university, have been sitting on their rear ends unwilling to get involved, step on toes, offend friends and call for improved performance by senior appointed and elected officials.

Complacency seems to have infected too many in Lawrence in city government, the chamber of commerce, throughout the community and university.

The situation at KU is a puzzle. For whatever reason there is not the excitement and optimism that used to identify Mt. Oread. There could be many reasons or excuses offered for this malaise including: Too many years of mediocre or poor leadership; the lack of what university officials believe is a proper level of state fiscal support; the inability of university supporters (top officials, the chancellor, alumni association leaders, alumni, students and loyal friends) to tell a powerful positive message about the need for support; ineffective regents who fail to devote the time, effort and commitment required to be on top of things on the many campuses they are supposed to oversee; a weak and ineffective legislative effort by a politically out manned Lawrence and Douglas County legislative delegation in pounding home the needs of the university; regents who lack the respect and attention of university leaders, legislators and the public; and a faculty with divided levels of loyalty, support and commitment to KU….and/or a little of each, which could be tied into the fiscal and leadership issues.

Also, the stagnation or paralysis could be caused by excessive political correctness.

Whatever the reasons and excuses, something needs to be done to stop the slide at KU. Some say “rankings” are overblown, however, grades and national rankings do mean a great deal to parents, students, high school advisors, faculty, potential faculty, alumni and state legislators….as well as to owners and directors of research facilities, industries and manufacturers.
The city continues to be looked upon as an extremely difficult place for investors interested in building, locating and/or financing a major facility.

They like Lawrence and its many assets and potential, the presence of the University and its geographic location but in their opinion, it takes far too long and really is a gamble to commit and invest their money in a Lawrence project and not have any idea how long it may be before they can expect to get a positive fiscal return. History shows there are more delays, roadblocks and lack of support from city hall in Lawrence than developers experience in other cities.

The long vacant, undeveloped large industrial acreage on the east side of Lawrence, paralleling highway 10, is an embarrassment. Great location, great site, a rail spur, water, a nearby university, a labor force with an excellent record, near a metropolitan area with airport, research and medical facilities, a nearby state capitol….what else is needed? Why isn’t there more than a “spec” building? Why isn’t there a good list of prospective occupants? How much encouragement and incentives is the city offering? What’s wrong with Lawrence? In past years Lawrence was a hot spot for growth and development. What has happened?

City commission elections are coming up with June the deadline for individuals to announce their candidacy. There will be three vacancies on the five-member commission in the upcoming election.

Right now it is unclear how many of the three individuals occupying a seat on the commission will seek re-election. Whatever the case, three positions will be open.

The commission plays a central and critical role in what happens to Lawrence and the future of Lawrence. The city manager can and does play whatever level of involvement or leadership he or she chooses, but the current city manager has announced he soon will leave office. Many in Lawrence are glad to see him go, some will think it is a loss and too many really don’t care.

However, all citizens should be interested in who serves on the city commission. Those seeking a seat on the commission should be individuals who are committed to doing a good job for the best interests of the entire city. They should not be elected to favor specific special interests.

They, too, just as state regents, should be individuals who by their past efforts, history, knowledge and honesty justify the respect of Lawrence residents.

It will be interesting who, and how many, talented, informed, open-minded and honest individuals will make the sacrifice and commitment required to serve as a city commissioner.
Have current commissioners done sufficiently good jobs and will Lawrence voters return them to office or will there be changes?

What kind of a city manager will these three individuals, along with the two returning incumbent commissioners, hire to help direct the city?

Does the current situation in Lawrence and KU handicap the chance of enticing top flight individuals to seek the city manager job or the vital dean and provost positions at KU?

A lot rides on the upcoming city election just as a lot rides on what happens at KU. The KU situation affects the entire state of Kansas, not just Lawrence, but something needs to be done to unite the faculty and alumni AND convince state legislators proper funding for higher education is critical and needed for the future growth and development of the state.
It’s a critical time for both Lawrence and KU.