Gilliland's effort to revamp UMKC well under way

The Kansas City Star/October 25, 2001
By Lynn Franey

The music professor has taught at UMKC for 19 years but never led a huge project or contributed to the biggest campus decisions.

Until now.

Mobberley leads a team trying to create International Visual and Performing Arts Center, expected to bring renowned artists to campus for lengthy residencies.

It is one of a dozen projects identified in UMKC's Blueprint for the Future, a strategic plan developed under Gilliland, who has been chancellor for a year and a half.

The blueprint is just one part of Gilliland's grand plan to remake UMKC -- long in the shadows of the bigger and better-known University of Missouri-Columbia and University of Kansas -- into a place where everyone has a can-do spirit and cooperates with people on and off campus.

"I provide the climate, the fertile ground for people to come together and think," she said. "What a great idea, to support collective thinking. And convert that into results."

Mobberley applauds Gilliland's willingness "to stick her neck out and take us to someplace new."

But while Gilliland's large-scale effort has earned her the admiration of some, it also has drawn derision from others who say the chancellor quashes independent thinking in favor of allegiance to herself and her plans.

Some professors dismiss her project as anti-intellectual, feel-good nonsense that's more about good PR than academic excellence.

Brian Livingston, for example, started out a believer in Gilliland's strong leadership. But the former associate professor of biological sciences left this year for the University of South Florida, saying the transformation project is like a cult and has shifted UMKC's focus away from learning.

"I have some very grave concerns," Livingston said. "Transformation is so restricted now that you participate in a certain way. We had to go to set meetings scheduled by the consultant. We had to do it their way and use their language."

Gilliland says she expected some opposition. But some faculty members' disdain hasn't deterred her from asking corporate and civic leaders in Kansas City to pitch in $2.5 million for campus transformation.

"We're up to big things. It's not going to be cheap, and it's not going to be easy," she said. "If you want to make a difference, if you want UMKC to make a difference ... it's going to be hard."

For Gilliland, 56, transformation means changing a university's entire culture: "From people being resigned to a `this always happens' kind of attitude to 'we make our own circumstances.' From silos and turf, to partnerships and collaboration. From a place to work to a place to contribute."

But her desire for university-wide transformation didn't arise from her early impressions of UMKC's strengths and weaknesses.

For many years, she has wanted to lead a university and remake it to face the challenges of the future. She finally got her chance in November 1999, when she was hired away from her provost's post at Tulane University.

Gilliland arrived at UMKC on April 1, 2000. But she already had begun organizing the transformation project that now permeates the university. In December 1999, she called old friend Gordon Starr, whose background is in the human potential movement.

Starr was out of work after having left the London Perret Roche Group consulting firm.

"Let's do what we've always talked about doing," Starr recalled Gilliland suggesting. "Transform an entire university."

Starr said another former client also expressed interest in hiring him as a consultant, so "I thought, with two calls from two former clients in one month, maybe I should start my own business."

He incorporated the Starr Consulting Group on Feb. 1, 2000, and within months he had received a $97,950 contract to begin UMKC's transformation.

In May 2000, he began holding workshops with a group of 80 top campus leaders -- vice chancellors, deans and other administrators.

Starr, who lives in San Francisco but spends about two weeks a month in Kansas City, encouraged them to think in a whole new way about UMKC and its possibilities.

They identified how they saw their jobs and their university, as well as how they thought people off campus viewed UMKC. Then they pondered what should be new or different, and detailed how to create a new and improved UMKC.

The group established the Blueprint for the Future, which focuses on remaking UMKC as a "community of learners making the world a better place." The blueprint has three themes: developing a campus without borders, building academic excellence and unleashing human potential.

Campus leaders also chose "breakthrough" projects in those themes. They include: creating the International Visual and Performing Arts Center, which will attract renowned artists to UMKC for lengthy residencies; leading life science innovation; getting more undergraduates involved in research; adding a new Student and Alumni Center to the existing University Center; and vastly improving UMKC's dormitory and apartments.

Gilliland announced the Blueprint and breakthrough projects at an elaborate inauguration in September 2000. She then recruited 160 campus volunteers for an extended cabinet to advise her.

Starr called choosing the blueprint and breakthrough projects Phase I of transformation. The extended cabinet voted last fall to continue the project into Phase II, which meant hiring Starr Consulting on a new, expanded contract.

Last spring the Board of Curators retroactively approved a 14-month, $750,000 contract, set to end Nov. 30. The board approved it on the condition that the money come from private donations, not state money.

As the first step in Phase II, the extended cabinet identified five core values for UMKC: education first; discovery and innovation; integrity and accountability; diversity, inclusiveness and respect; and energized collaborative communities.

Phase II also includes "engaging the constituency," which means inviting everyone at UMKC to Starr's three-day workshops. Each workshop has had about 80 participants. They are encouraged to fan out and convince their colleagues to attend.

Gilliland and Starr also want to engage community leaders. She invited community leaders to UMKC earlier this school year for a progress report, and has been visiting Kansas City foundations and civic groups to raise money for the $2.5 million transformation project.

UMKC hired a local PR firm, Corporate Communications, for two years to publicize the changes. Gilliland said the company is paid $3,000 a month out of the money she has raised for transformation.

Another goal is "aligning the architecture" -- changing campus policies, procedures and rules to support transformation. For example, Gilliland wants promotion and tenure decisions to rest partly on how a professor contributes to the transformation effort.

Many on campus say transformation inspires because it focuses on the future, not the past. It brings together people who never bothered to meet each other.

"This is a very different UMKC than it was two years ago," said Craig Klimczak, UMKC's chief information technology officer. "Some of the changes are refreshing and will allow us to get beyond history and let us go into the future with a fresh idea and a fresh look."

Max Skidmore, a longtime political science professor, said: "This is the first time in years the university has had a true direction."

Even though many employees approve of the changes being made, there is some grumbling among others on a campus that has experienced the departure or reassignment of six of 10 academic deans since Gilliland arrived.

Much of the criticism is directed at what detractors call the project's group-think aspects. For example, Starr asks workshop participants to stand and acknowledge what rumors they've heard, and admit whether they've helped spread them.

Also, detractors criticize the diagrams Starr uses to show how people at organizations react to transformation. One shows the groups of skeptics shrinking and cynics disappearing as transformation progresses.

Professors such as Alfred Esser, who teaches biological sciences, contend that academic freedom protects cynics and skeptics, and everyone should feel free to question decisions made by high-level administrators.

Marino Martinez-Carrion, the dean of UMKC's respected School of Biological Sciences for 15 years, was demoted by Gilliland.

He said transformation workshops seemed more like "group therapy" than an intellectual exercise, and alleged that employees' opinion of "transformation" now trumps their academic abilities.

"The only test now is to be a Blueprinter," he said.

History professor Patrick Peebles said he is ambivalent. Yet he thinks Starr's background in the human potential movement and the corporate world don't seem to fit at UMKC.

At a university "we are decentralized and build on our strengths. We make the best of the people we have," he said. "(Starr and Gilliland) seem to be doing the reverse. If people don't fit with the program, they're gone in some way or another. There's a tremendous cost."

Starr's ideas are shaped by his lengthy involvement in Erhard Seminar Training, which attracted devotees and detractors in the 1970s and 1980s.

The intense three-day seminars were meant to help individuals "transform" themselves. They learned how to believe in themselves and their futures and to get beyond whatever was holding them back.

They also were required to use the terminology of the EST trainers, and encouraged to talk family and friends into taking the seminars, according to media reports.

Starr said he took his first EST seminar in 1973. He then became an EST trainer. Founder Werner Erhard fled the United States under suspicion of evading tax laws. He had renamed EST as Landmark Education (also known as the Forum). He sold Landmark to his brother. It still presents human potential seminars around the country, which many people say have helped them take control of their lives.

Even though cult awareness groups still criticize the Forum, Starr said he has taught Forum seminars and has "never read anything that says that the impact of the Forum or the EST training is anything except very powerful and very useful. That's been my personal experience."

Gilliland said: "I have never done EST. ... I have incredible respect for the many projects that came out of EST."

Starr maintains that the transformation process at UMKC is nothing like a cult.

"I'm not a cult expert, but one thing I know about cults is they take thinking away," he said. "All this has to do with bringing thinking back, not taking thinking away."

Gilliland and Starr have known each other since she was the vice president for human resources at the University of Arizona in the early 1990s. At the time, he was a consultant who was helping smooth a working relationship between university employees and a telecommunications company.

The chancellor and her supporters say the project already has been a success. But opponents point to the deans and professors who have left since Gilliland's arrival, saying transformation is dividing the campus.

Others just aren't sure what the future holds for the university.

Longtime engineering professor Quinton Bowles likened transformation to the small-town religious revivals his preacher father used to put on.

"My own personal experience has been that revivals never really converted many people. Maybe for a few days or weeks or months. Then it's all gone," he said. "Starr's group does a lot of things to make people feel good about themselves, feel good about the university. That's not all bad. But what happens when it's all over?"

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