Many of those who had been critical of Joan Finney during her quest for the Kansas governorship expressed cautious optimism about the victorious candidate after noting the people she had been able to enlist to help prepare her for the move into the governor's office. These critics said she had been able to attract some able individuals, including some prominent Democrats who had opposed her election bid, to her transition team, and for this reason, they were hopeful she would be a more effective governor than they had anticipated.
Unfortunately, the governor's first selection for the Kansas Board of Regents raises questions on the criteria she will use to fill important appointive positions. Will appointments to the regents and other top bodies and agencies be based on gender, political affiliation, race, school identification, political IOUs, ability, expertise or what?
Education certainly is one of the most critical challenges facing Kansas, and every other state. The role of higher education, budgets for higher education, how to attract and hold top faculty members, what to do about selective admissions policies, the relationship between the many community colleges and the regents institutions, the possible admission of Washburn University into the state system, and the role of Kansas University as the state's flagship institution are just a few of the many issues facing the regents, the governor, school administrators and the people of Kansas.
Finney's appointment this week of Jo Ann McDowell, president of Independence Community College, to the board of regents raises many puzzling and disturbing questions. Also, Linwood Sexton of Wichita, the able regent she replaces, was not notified in a proper and courteous manner. In fact, the notification was handled in a dumb, crude manner. Sexton didn't learn of McDowell's appointment until he arrived at a regents meeting in Topeka and was informed by a regents staffer.
Should an executive of a community college, an institution which in many ways is in direct competition with the state's regents institutions, be appointed to the regents? No matter how some people, including the governor and McDowell may try to suggest otherwise, there are bound to be conflicts of interest. Community colleges are in competition for students, for state fiscal support and in many other areas.
It is very questionable whether it was wise for Finney to make McDowell her first appointee to the regents. Few state bodies are as important as the board of regents, and for too long, governors have used this body to pay off political debts and personal IOUs. It had been hoped Finney might sidestep such practices, but the selection of McDowell is disturbing. It will be interesting to note whom she selects to take the place of two other regents whose terms also expired Dec. 31.
Higher education deserves the utmost attention and concern by the governor, members of the Legislature and the taxpayers of the state. This is why the composition of the board of regents is so important, and a governor can show his or her interest and concern about a superior higher education system by the caliber of individuals considered and eventually appointed to the board of regents.
So far, Finney has not made a strong case for the priority she assigns to higher education.