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Building Tomorrow by Reflecting on Today

November 2, 2010

KU Faculty, Staff, and Students:

Recently, on a lovely Kansas fall morning, the chancellor and I had the pleasure of attending the dedication of the new School of Pharmacy building on West Campus. There is something thrilling and uplifting about this kind of event as it launches a new path forward.

In each of their remarks at the dedication, Kansas Board of Regents chair Gary Sherrer and Kansas governor Mark Parkinson reminded us that 149 years ago when Kansas became a state, even though circumstances were dire and poverty rampant, the people of Kansas realized that we won’t have a future without universities. As Regent Sherrer explained, “they weren’t concerned with today; they were concerned with tomorrow.” The opening of the Pharmacy Building is “this kind of future thinking,” he continued, “and I hope it is infectious — that we might have others who will not use today as an excuse to not invest in tomorrow.”

Governor Parkinson spoke pointedly about why he is concerned for higher education, not just in the state of Kansas but nationally. “In 2000, the U.S. was the 10th highest country in GDP investments in education. But by 2010, just 10 years later, we have dropped dramatically; we are into the 20s on that scale. There are countries all over the world that are spending more per capita on education than we are. At the very time the rest of the world’s countries are lengthening their school year, lengthening their school day, and broadening their curriculum, we in the United States are doing just the opposite.”

Closer to home in the state of Kansas, the governor added that “we do not now have a single university in the state that is rated in the top 100. Not a single one.” I could feel my optimism slipping, but then he continued, “Now the bright light is this school. The School of Pharmacy is rated 18th of 120 Pharmacy schools. It’s 2nd in the nation in NIH funding.”

In a time of shrinking support, this building is evidence that the people of Kansas remember that our universities are not merely tax burdens, but investments to be made for the future of Kansas. I felt my optimism returning.

Examining today

As I look at KU today, I find myself, like Governor Parkinson, both concerned and optimistic. I feel the pull of the founders of this university — the future thinking and visionary pioneers who established this university in the face of severe hardships. I think we owe those early pioneers and ourselves a continued commitment to the future.

We are a great institution. There are many reasons to be proud: from Paul Meier’s staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — the first time in North America that a Shakespeare production is being performed entirely in its original dialect — to celebrating that three of KU’s alumnæ are among the 25 most powerful women in the world, as identified by Forbes magazine. Only KU, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale have three graduates similarly represented in the top 25.

As a great institution interested in getting better, we need to spend time in the present and take a realistic appraisal of where we are in order to build true excellence. I believe that KU faculty, staff, alumni, and students have the confidence to not shy away from critical self-examination and reflection. I am confident that we can and must ask tough questions today in order to ensure a strong and vibrant tomorrow.

At the first meeting of the strategic planning steering committee on October 20, I shared some indicators of where KU is today. Attached is one of those indicators in the form of a chart for all of you to examine as well. This chart compares KU with our peer universities, particularly those in the Association of American Universities. The AAU is the preeminent collection of leading research-intensive universities. KU was invited to join the AAU as Kansas’s flagship university 101 years ago.

Comparisons with Peer Universities

The data indicate that we are lagging behind our AAU peers in many important measures: federal research expenditures, members in the national academies, significant faculty awards, citations, doctoral degrees granted, overall rating of undergraduate programs, and academic reputation. The rightmost column shows where KU (and K-State) stand with respect to a group of research universities that include the 61 current U.S. AAU universities along with another 65 universities that would like nothing better than to be invited to join the AAU. The membership in the AAU changes regularly; new universities are added, and some leave. I am concerned that many non-AAU universities are outperforming KU on some key metrics.

The steering committee also talked about important facets of our undergraduate programs. Fewer than one-third of our students graduate within four years. Our six-year graduation rate is only 60%. The general education component of the KU curriculum, which is largely unchanged for almost 30 years, requires 30–50% more general education courses than do our peer universities. As a result, it is harder for our students to take full advantage of the powerful opportunities KU offers in terms of double majors, minors, study abroad, and undergraduate research experiences.

For some of you, this may be the first time you have seen these benchmarks. My personal philosophy is that, in order for this university to move forward, I should not share with you only “feel-good” information. You need access to the same information I look at every day to assess for yourself if we are headed in the right direction. Each of us needs to own KU’s future and be empowered to provide feedback to our units and to the strategic planning process. We can only do so if we have reliable information about our status today.

Building tomorrow

I invite you to visit the strategic planning web site, where you can find the full presentation I made on October 20 about the state of our current performance indicators. It was the initial part of a SWOT analysis, in which the steering committee looked at KU’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. As I emphasized in the last Provost eNews, the key to success in our planning and the subsequent implementation will be the input and involvement of the KU community in the process.

Gov. Parkinson ended his remarks at the pharmacy building dedication with a statement that captures the essence of what we are after in our strategic planning process: “Let’s celebrate this great accomplishment today of opening this tremendous school, but let’s do really much more than that. Let’s decide that it’s time to not be really good, but it’s time to be great. And when we’re great, then it’s time to start planning to be excellent. And let’s understand that the only way we can do that is when the resources and the strategies are combined.”

I look forward to working with you on planning to be great and then excellent. That road will be assured if we collectively meet head-on the challenges of today.

Provost's Message Signature: 

Rock Chalk!
  -- Jeff

Jeffrey S. Vitter

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor
Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor

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