Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little

Remarks to The Central Exchange CEO Series

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Remarks as prepared for delivery

It is my understanding that this series is a place for CEOs and other leaders to talk about their leadership styles, which I am happy to do.

I was also asked to talk about any "special leadership challenges" caused by the recession. I have faced my fair share of those. And I have some other "special leadership challenges" that were not caused by the recession.

Now, some might think that, as a university leader, I would come at the issue of executive leadership from a different angle than would a CEO in the private sector. And to some degree that is true. None of you has to worry about athletic conference realignment, for example.

But there are many similarities between a university and a private company.

In business, no matter whether you are manufacturing cars or offering tax services, you are looking for excellence in your product and in your operations. You are seeking to maximize the value of what you provide to your customers, while also enabling the growth of the business.

A university has parallel goals.

We strive for excellence in our educational programs and their graduates, seeking to deliver a high quality education at a tuition level that our students can afford.

We strive for excellence in research and scholarship, which improves our society's quality of life and often has economic benefits.

And we strive for excellence when we work with the community, providing services like the JayDoc Free Clinic here in Kansas City, as well as all the other benefits that come from our academic and research efforts.

These are the basic functions of a university.

Fortunately at the university, everyone - or almost everyone - aspires to those goals, thus the task of a leader is to create ever more rigorous definitions of excellence and to provide the structure and support to achieve it.

This itself is a challenge, because like every organization, the university must always struggle against complacency. "This is how we have always done it" is a dangerous philosophy.

There is also the more difficult problem of those that believe they want change, and even believe change is necessary to ensure excellence, but think that change only needs to come from others. They themselves do not see the need to change their attitudes or behavior.

That poses a leadership challenge - how do you convince someone that they themselves need to change in order to achieve excellence for the institution?

But no matter how you approach it, what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow, so we must always be willing to try something new. Indeed, there are indications that women have a greater willingness to break with history than do their male counterparts.

When looking at the motivation of women philanthropists, the Women's Philanthropy Institute discovered that women are more willing to change the status quo. They say this is because as women we want to use our power to benefit future generations, often by countering injustice and inequity we may have experienced.

They also report that women are more likely to create new solutions to old problems, rather than sticking with what has been done in the past.

So while we would all agree that institutional history is critical to any institution, we must be informed by it, not bound to it. We must use it as a guide as we seek excellence in our operations, whether those operations are in a small business, a Fortune 500 company or a research university.

For a university, this drive for excellence must take place in every school and department. It starts with the recruitment of talented students, an area where I believe there is room for KU to enhance its reach and lift the ambitions of students who want to attend KU. It continues on through the education of those students by talented faculty members, who themselves were recruited to come here.

And in addition to giving students the knowledge they need to become graduates, our faculty also conduct the research and scholarly work that we feed back into the economy and society.

Of course, we do not act in a vacuum. KU has competitors just like you do. Our competitors for students and for donations are other schools in the state and region. For the most talented local students, the ones who can attend any university they wish, and for talented faculty, we compete with universities across the nation and even the globe. We also compete nationally for research grants.

This competition is fierce, it is continuous, and it does not stop just because we are in a recession.

That recession has resulted in KU taking more than $40 million in state budget cuts and unfunded mandates. Of our overall budget, only about a quarter is funded by the state, though the Medical Center relies on state funding more than the Lawrence Campus.

Just like a business does when sales slow and income drops, we have had to reevaluate our operations, and focus on our core missions. However, we do not have the option of downsizing to increase profitability or decreasing our output with regard to students. In fact, as KU has faced this crisis, we have had the two largest annual enrollments in our history.

Of course, reevaluating our operations is something that should be taking place anyway. I attended a leadership workshop once in which the presenter said your budget is the action part of your plan. I have kept this in mind and often think of goals in terms of what it will take to implement them.

My goals are to increase the percentage of our students who stay in college and graduate, as well as to boost scholarly work at KU in a wide range of disciplines.

Obviously, the goals I have will take resources. One of those resources is money. Other resources include people, materiel, and infrastructure necessary to put our plans in place.

But some resources are not easily measured. KU needs good will and collaboration from all parts of the community; money cannot buy either.

We are a research university. We want to not only remain a research university, but to improve our stature. This is an extremely costly process, and although high quality research can bring in money in the form of external grants in some disciplines, you have to have a commitment of resources on the front end to make that happen.

In this time when funds are harder to come by, our budget - our action plan - has to change. We will rely more on private fundraising and on research grants. We will refocus our operations and seek additional efficiencies. And we will be willing to take advantage of resources as we identify them, even if that means funding the things we do in a piecemeal way rather than in one grand sweep.

But as you are all no doubt aware, being a leader involves much more than just writing budgets and setting goals. Some of the most trying leadership issues have nothing to do with money.

KU has been in the news lately, and unfortunately that news has not been good. We discovered that a half-dozen individuals in the athletics department -a department of 200 people - had been siphoning away tickets meant for donor-development and community relations and selling them for personal profit.

The initial response to that is straightforward - get rid of the employees involved and put in safeguards to make sure that sort of fraud does not happen again. And that is what we are doing.

But how do you restore the trust of fans who suspect they did not get the best seats they were supposed to get?

How do you restore the confidence of alumni who see their university's failings splashed across the front page of the paper, and then have to deal with the Wildcats and Tigers at their office that day?

And how do you restore the faith of taxpayers and legislators, who even though no taxpayer money was involved and Kansas Athletics is self-sufficient, wonder what is happening at their state's flagship university?

Add to that the complex conference realignment picture, and you have a set of trying leadership challenges. These challenges consume a significant amount of time and attention during a period when KU is seeking to focus on its scholarly goals. And this is one of the more unfortunate outcomes.

Of course, academic programs have reputations that take just as much time and effort to build as sports programs. It is the same with a university's research centers. But college athletics plays such a prominent role in society that the challenges a university faces in the sports arena often get the most attention.

We can lament that all we want, but, as sports broadcasters say, it is what it is. Part of being a leader is recognizing the priorities of our society, even as you work to change those priorities toward pursuits that will have a more lasting impact. (Though if anyone has ideas on how to get our nationally ranked pharmacy school a multi-million dollar ESPN contract, please see me afterwards.)

If you have set solid goals, have a team that is committed to those goals, and have created an action plan to achieve them, then it is easier to stay focused on the long-term even when dealing with the crises and distractions that arise along the way.

I am focused on the long-term academic and research missions of the university. That is what I was hired to do. That's what our alumni and the people of Kansas want me to do. I will take decisive action to address the challenges we're facing in athletics, but I am not going to forget that the primary functions of a university are to educate students and create knowledge.

At the end of the day, leading a university involves many of the same skills needed to lead any group or organization, from a corporation to a family.

Setting goals, and convincing others to pursue them with you by establishing ever more rigorous standards of excellence.

Staying focused on those goals even as what may be significant distractions appear on your path.

Using history as a guide, but not being so limited by it that you never try anything new.

Utilizing your budget as an action plan so that you remain focused on your core missions, while at the same time recognizing that the biggest leadership challenges are those that are unforeseen.

And knowing that some of the most valuable resources - confidence, trust, good will - are easily squandered, and not easily regained.

A good leader also knows when it is time for others to speak. I want to again thank you for the opportunity to visit with you today, and I look forward to answering any questions you might have.



Chancellor's Vision

The mission of the University of Kansas is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities, and making discoveries that change the world.

We will do that by raising the expectations we have for ourselves, the aspirations we have for our state, and the hopes we have for our world.

KU is in the midst of a comprehensive effort to ensure the university is ranked among the top tier of public international research universities.

Through Bold Aspirations, our strategic plan, we're changing the way we prepare students for success. We're fostering research and scholarship across all disciplines. And we're sharing the benefits of a flagship university with our state and world.

This effort is supported by Far Above: The Campaign for Kansas, as well as our initiative to reduce administrative costs, Changing for Excellence.

 

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
44 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
—ALA
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times