KU chancellor, provost field questions on university’s future in 2-hour town hall

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The top two leaders at the University of Kansas on Wednesday responded to dozens of questions from members of the KU faculty — many of whom have expressed a growing discontent with how Kansas’ flagship university has managed its finances, its people and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic — in a two-hour town hall meeting hosted by the KU Faculty Senate.

Chancellor Douglas Girod and Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer virtually addressed myriad questions submitted to Faculty Senate President Lua Yuille, who is also a law professor, though they weren’t able to hit all 133 questions Yuille said she received.

Here are some highlights from what Girod and Bichelmeyer had to say:

What do KU’s finances look like moving forward? Why are things the way they are?

Context: KU in May 2020 initially estimated its budgetary shortfall directly attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic at $120 million — an eye-popping 26% of its general use budget. Since then, a new fiscal year began and budget shortfalls are still estimated somewhere between $50 million and $76 million.

Girod: “Historically, you go back 30 years, the state funded the significant portion of our general use budget and that’s what funded time for faculty to do research, as well as the facilities to do that research. I think we’ve all collectively seen over the last 20 years — and it really started in the early 2000s and then was exacerbated by the recession 2008, now exacerbated again by a pandemic — that the state’s investment in higher education has dwindled, and we have relied more heavily on student tuition to (fund research).”

Bichelmeyer: “I do think, most critical is understanding the connection between the teaching enterprise and the research enterprise in a way that’s never existed before. But finding funding and support as we can to create opportunities for incentive to grow researches, is a critical element that we’ll be addressing as well.”

What is KU doing to address matters of diversity, equity and inclusion?

Context: Much of the KU community has been upset with the university’s handling of diversity and race issues for years, but that frustration culminated more recently when university administration announced a reorganizing of diversity, equity and inclusion offices that resulted in two long-time staff members in the Office of Multicultural Affairs losing their jobs.

Bichelmeyer: “All I heard from everybody that that I spoke to — and the chancellor was with me in any number of meetings and literally we heard from hundreds and hundreds of constituents — is that our efforts are broken in creating an environment of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. I heard that from the faculty and the staff and the students from leadership groups.”

“What we’ve learned in that mix is that we haven’t invested in faculty, we haven’t invested in staff, we invested primarily in the student enterprise in a way that is very helpful in that we are providing students with skills to speak to social injustice issues. But we haven’t actually been spending our resources there in changing policy and fixing processes and changing systems and structures, and making sure there’s accountability.”

Why does KU rely on outside consultants when finances are tight and there’s experts at the institution?

Context: KU, like many other colleges and universities, often brings in outside consultants for insight on various university matters. While common, KU faculty and staff have taken particular issue with the university’s use of such consultants in recent years as the financial picture at the university became more daunting. Most recently, KU hired a firm called RPK Group to analyze virtually every aspect of the university’s academic and financial mission, which could then be used to guide the university moving forward.

Bichelmeyer: “I know that there’s great individual expertise here in this institution, and I also want to note that point (made by a KU faculty member in the meeting) that ‘we understand what it takes to keep our students.’ I believe strongly in the idea that it’s great for us to look out and to benchmark and to see what we can learn from others.”

“It’s not an either or — that we use our people and we don’t use consultants or we use consultants and we don’t use our people — is that we have to learn wherever we can learn and however we can learn and have a great passion for learning. And so I’d like to see us firing on all cylinders to that end.”

“We are, I think, the anti-business, if you believe that what businesses do is use people to make money. We are a place where we use the dollars that we have to make people, and that’s why for me, it’s so critical that our people are our greatest asset. Our faculty and our staff, our people are actually what we produce.”

What’s the appropriate amount of time to have an interim dean leading a particular school?

Context: KU has had multiple interim deans of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, its largest school, since 2018, when Carl Lejuez, the last permanent dean of the school, was appointed to serve as the interim provost. KU’s School of Architecture and Design has had an interim dean since summer 2019, when dean Mahesh Daas left KU to become president of an architectural college in Boston.

Girod: “I think it’s prudent to try and get deans in place so that they can be helping to manage through these challenging times. But sometimes these challenging times are the hardest time to find the team to have them walk into … the culture of the place, and the operations of the place. So I think it can be a double-edged sword in these rapidly evolving times.”

Bichelmeyer: “I’m getting a sense of where we are financially … and that’s been getting transparency of data. Understanding our financial situation is critical before we go about being very active in (a permanent dean) search because if I were a candidate and I didn’t know exactly what I was walking into, that would be a disincentive to want to apply.”

Following those answers, a pointed exchange took place between Girod and University Senate President Sanjay Mishra, a business professor.

Mishra: How long do you want an interim football coach to stay?

Girod: “I think it depends on your current situation and that’s certainly why we’re gonna have an athletic director, make that decision whether you need to get somebody right now, or whether you wait a year and see what plays out. I think that’s a value judgment that needs to be made.”

Mishra: “So I’m hearing one season, max?”

Girod: “Probably from a recruiting perspective, yes.”

Mishra: “OK, that’s not what’s happening in the College (of Liberal Arts and Sciences).”

The Kansas Board of Regents’ tenure policy

Context: The Kansas Board of Regents, which governs all public colleges and universities in the state, voted in January to endorse a two-year policy that would make it easier for universities to suspend, dismiss or terminate employees — including tenured faculty — without initiating the process of formally declaring a financial emergency. Every university except for KU disavowed the policy and said they wouldn’t use it, but KU officials have kept the option on the table as a “last resort.”

Yuille began this section of the town hall by asking Girod and Bichelmeyer whether a KU official asked the Board of Regents to consider the controversial policy.

Girod: “No.”

“I first heard about it at the Regents level … I am probably the loudest voice at the Board of Regents in Topeka and with the governor’s office about the challenges that we’re facing, and the potential detrimental impact not supporting our university would have on state of Kansas. I have been beating that drum nonstop even before the pandemic began, but certainly since the pandemic began.”

“I’m a 27-year faculty member at the University of Kansas, I’ve been tenured for 21 of those years. I’ve hired literally dozens and dozens of faculty, both as a chair and a dean. I understand the importance of tenure. I understand the importance of tenure to KU as an institution. I understand the importance of our ability to attract and keep the best and brightest in our respective fields. I understand the importance of tenure for academic freedom, for freedom of expression, for freedom of academic pursuit. All those are fundamental to who we are as an institution, as well.

“But I’m also the Regents’ appointed steward at this moment in time of this institution, and so they expected me to present them with models of sustainability and success to go through these challenges, particularly exacerbated at the moment by the pandemic. And they view this as a tool that they put out there for that.”

“It’s a methodology of absolute last resort. But until we know how we’re going to get ourselves out of (the current financial situation), I cannot as the steward say fiscally that that is not an absolute possibility, depending on how things play out. I don’t think it’ll be a possibility. I hope it’s not a possibility, but that’s where we are right now.”

The full recording of the town hall will be posted on the KU Governance website soon, Yuille said Wednesday.

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