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Archive for Sunday, February 6, 1994

WASHBURN PINS ITS HOPES AGAIN ON REGENTS ENTRY

February 6, 1994

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— Officials at Washburn University of Topeka have been fighting for years to transform the last municipal university in the nation into the seventh Kansas Board of Regents school.

The history of debate about making Washburn University a state university boils down to politics and money.

"I'm not sure how you can separate the two," said state Rep. Forrest Swall, D-Lawrence.

Champions of Washburn's merger with the Kansas Board of Regents system have repeatedly fallen victim to political squabbling. Conflicts among lawmakers, even on unrelated issues, have impeded WU's drive for state affiliation.

"It's hard to forge a consensus," said David Monical, WU's director of governmental relations. "Clearly, Washburn gets wrapped up in parochial issues."

Perhaps the greatest obstacle for WU to overcome has been the belief that adding Washburn to the regents' system would simply give state taxpayers another mouth to feed in an already malnourished university family.

"The money is the big one," said Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence. "We know higher education needs more money in all areas."

Inclusion of Washburn, a 6,500-student municipal university in Topeka, has been considered at various times during the past 30 years. However, WU supporters increased the lobbying pressure in recent years.

The latest round in the debate begins this week when a bill is introduced that would allow Washburn to become a full-fledged Board of Regents university in 1997.

Monical said the bill should mirror the proposal put forward in December by Gov. Joan Finney. The legislation would slow the pace of Washburn tuition increases, but would require Topeka residents to keep paying an annual 18-mill property tax to support the city's university.

In addition, a Regents Center would be established in Topeka to administer all graduate programs offered in the area except law. The Board of Regents would reserve the right to assess, alter and discontinue academic programs at WU.

"Is that the best of all possible deals? No," Monical said. "It's recognition that it will stop growth of local property taxes for Washburn."

Finney tied her support for Washburn to the Partnership for Excellence, a three-year program promoted by the Board of Regents to beef up faculty salaries. Much of the salary funding would be generated by large tuition increases at state universities, including Kansas University.

Although the tuition increase and other elements of the Partnership for Excellence were endorsed Friday by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Finney's insistence on linking faculty salaries with WU threatens both.

"I'm disappointed the regents went along with the governor's plan to have it all or nothing. It's unrealistic," said Rep. Jim Lowther, R-Emporia.

In fact, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rochelle Chronister of Neodesha has demanded that $10 million be cut from the regents' budget.

Sen. Sandy Praeger, R-Lawrence, said it wasn't a good idea for the governor to express unwillingness to compromise on Washburn and faculty salaries given the state's tight budget.

"I may end up supporting the partnership package, but I have reservations," she said.

Swall said there could be repercussions if legislators from districts that include regents' universities don't fall in line.

In the 1993 session, legislators from Shawnee County, which includes Topeka, voted as a block to defeat a bill that would have allowed regents' universities to implement qualified admissions. Regents had fought on the bill's behalf for years.

"They demonstrated their clout last year by defeating qualified admissions. They did it to send a message," he said.

Whether bringing Washburn into the system is a sound idea educationally remains open to question.

For example, Finney's plan stipulates that WU would enter the university system with its schools of business, law and nursing. However, KU and other regents universities have all three academic schools in place.

"What do we do with two law schools?" Ballard asked.

Despite all the side issues, Monical said it was time Kansas put an end to the outmoded municipal university concept. If Washburn joins the system, he said, all four-year public universities would be under a single governing board.

"I don't think there are legitimate arguments against it," Monical said.

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