Letters to campus
July 31, 2012
Dear Faculty and Staff,
Greetings from Anderson Hall! If you have had the opportunity to walk in front of the building, you have certainly seen the scaffolding that is in place as the roof is replaced — a much needed repair. We anticipate that the roof work will go on for several months, which means that the parking lot behind Anderson will also be closed until sometime in October. If you are coming into Anderson Hall for any reason, be sure to use the side doors. I apologize for the inconvenience, but am pleased that we continue to make progress on deferred maintenance issues on campus.
This has certainly been an eventful summer in public higher education. Dr. Theresa Sullivan was forced to resign as president at the University of Virginia, and then several weeks later was reinstated. There is a significant amount of speculation on why she was asked to step down in the first place, but clearly the rate of change at UVa, and in particular the implementation of more aggressive distance education programs, was a key factor. In addition to the multitude of issues at the University of Virginia, the continued unfolding of the events at Penn State University has also shocked the higher education community.
Both of these situations — while significantly different — have some similar themes revolving around the role of boards on institutional vision and direction; the role of shared governance on the pace of change and institutional accountability; and the key role that presidents play in setting and maintaining institutional culture. In this month's letter, I would like to share with you my thoughts on many of the events that were at the core of the issues at the University of Virginia.
Institutional or statewide boards play a major role in both articulating the university vision and setting institutional priorities. The board also plays a key role in ensuring that the senior leadership team is held accountable for university actions — including appropriate conduct of students, faculty, and staff. As university governing boards are often made up of individuals who are not higher education professionals, it is very important that the president articulates the unique aspects of higher education to the board, and that the board in turn counts on the president to articulate board concerns and goals to the university community. This system works well as long as both parties keep communication lines open — but can easily break down if there are significant agendas on either side.
One of the frequent criticisms of public higher education is that we are slow to change, and that the speed of change at most universities is best measured in glacial timescales! Often, boards see the rapid changes that take place in the private sector, and want to see the same rapid change occur in public higher education. This desire for rapid change is often countered by the university community that is focused on the importance of shared governance in decision-making. Indeed, there is a sense among the greater public that faculty and staff want to only do what they did a decade ago, and that there is a university-wide reticence to do anything different. I believe that the perceived pace of change was one of the primary points of contention in the situation which arose at the University of Virginia.
I am a firm believer in shared governance and collaborative decision-making. There is no reason that public higher education institutions — Kansas State included — can’t react to continual change in a collaborative spirit that results in a stronger university at the end. In my view, the key reason for decision-making through shared governance is that often the final idea is better than what was initially considered. Additionally and more importantly, involvement in the decision making process ultimately results in better buy-in of whatever initiative is put in place. I believe that we have a culture of shared governance and collaborative decision making at Kansas State — which will be important as we tackle the rapidly changing nature of public higher education. We continue to have checks and balances in place as well as a transparent culture to prevent unfortunate incidents similar to those at Penn State.
We have several key challenges that will certainly test our resolve in the coming years. It is abundantly clear from trends nationally and within Kansas that the financial model for public higher education is changing quickly and dramatically. The days when state governments provided significant new funds to higher education to "enhance the greater good" are over in most states. Public universities are moving to "quasi-private" models of operation, students and families are paying higher tuition and fees, university athletic programs are becoming more financially independent, universities are becoming more entrepreneurial in seeking additional revenue streams to support themselves, and the role of distance education in delivering educational opportunities to place-bound students is evolving rapidly. Elected officials, board members, and the general public are inundated with editorials and on-line discourse about the cost of higher education and the perceived importance of distance education in containing the spiraling costs to obtain an undergraduate degree.
So, how are we responding to these trends in funding and distance education at Kansas State University? How do we make sure that we are fulfilling our land grant mission to meet the educational needs of Kansas citizens while keeping costs contained and quality high? These questions are not answered easily or quickly.
To begin with, we must find additional ways to weave distance education into the very fabric of our institution in a financially sustainable fashion that is in line with K-State 2025 and our goal to be nationally recognized as a Top 50 public university. Will this be easy? No. However, by working together and making decisions in a collaborative fashion, I am convinced that Kansas State will continue to change and evolve, but will do so in a way with everyone participating.
As Provost April Mason and I visit with you in August and September, we will be discussing these issues with you, and will start a campus wide conversation on these important topics for our future.
I am bullish about the future of public higher education in the United States and in Kansas. Will the Kansas State of tomorrow look like the Kansas State of a decade ago? Certainly not. I am looking forward to excellent dialog this upcoming academic year as we continue to evolve as an institution. However, we are going to do this hand-in-hand with the Kansas Board of Regents and faculty, staff, and students. Why? Because it is the K-State way.