Better late than never. That could be the thinking relative to the news report earlier this week that the Kansas Board of Regents plans to have its members become involved in a much more sophisticated and effective lobbying effort on behalf of higher education.
For too many years, those serving as regents apparently have looked upon the duties associated with an appointment to this once-prestigious body as being little more than an obligation to meet at the appropriate times throughout the years, perhaps put in an appearance at an opening convocation or a graduation ceremony at one of the regents universities, have their signature duplicated on university graduation diplomas and bask in the honor of being a regent.
Too few regents were active or effective in telling the story of the importance of higher education. In recent years, regents also have taken a back seat to the executive secretaries -- or as they like to call themselves, executive directors. These men have carved out increasingly important roles for themselves and have become the chief spokesmen for the regents. The respective positions and responsibilities have become reversed because of a careless, lazy Board of Regents or aggressive, ambitious executive directors.
Whatever the case, the Board of Regents lost the prestige it once enjoyed. This important body became a convenient place for governors to express their thanks by appointing friends or acquaintances to the board for past political favors. Consequently, legislators have lost much of their respect for those serving as regents, the public doesn't read or hear much about individual regents taking strong, sound positions on matters concerning higher education, and funding for higher education has suffered.
It appears, however, there may be a changing attitude within the regents. Gov. Bill Graves has appointed three new members of the board, and because of the unexpected resignation of another regent, he will have the opportunity to make yet another nomination within a short time.
This writer has known two of the three new regents for a number of years -- Bob Talkington of Iola and Bill Docking of Arkansas City -- and they both should be top-flight regents.
Talkington, an Iola attorney and former president of the Kansas Senate, is highly regarded by many now serving in the state Legislature and will bring added respect to the regents. Docking, an Arkansas City banker, likewise is highly respected. He is a son of the late Gov. Robert Docking of Lawrence, who was a strong supporter of higher education, and he, too, adds strength, respect and believability to the body.
The other recent appointee is Kenneth Havner of Hays, and reports indicate he wants to help restore the prestige and effectiveness the body enjoyed years ago.
Over the years, particularly since the time of Franklin Murphy, Kansas University chancellors have been the principal and most effective spokespeople for higher education in Kansas. They were the ones who would lead the efforts in Topeka, addressing state legislators on the importance of higher education and the need for adequate state fiscal support. They would tour the state, telling the story of higher education. They did not use this as an opportunity to tout the advantages of KU versus other regents schools or to recruit students but rather to try to get people throughout the state to realize the relationship of excellence in higher education to the future of the state.
Each state university, particularly KU and Kansas State University, had various groups that tried to influence state legislators and, from time to time, student organizations became involved in lobbying efforts. Too often, too many people were involved in poorly coordinated lobbying efforts.
Times have changed, however, and it has become increasingly difficult for chancellors, alumni and friends to sway legislators to appropriate badly needed and justified funding.
At a regents retreat earlier this week, the regents chairman, Dr. John Hiebert of Lawrence, said, "I think the system is broke. We need to do a better job with the Legislature." After what was termed a "wide-ranging debate," the regents decided that a far better and more coordinated strategy should be initiated to inform legislators of the needs and priorities of higher education.
Talkington's experience as an able and respected state legislator is going to be extremely valuable in this effort, and at this week's retreat, he explained the facts of life for dealing with state legislators. "If you lose a battle," he cautioned, "you thank them for giving attention to your issue. You don't want to burn any bridges." He said regents shouldn't lash out if they fail to muster legislative support for a higher education initiative.
Hopefully, this marks the beginning of a new era for the regents and higher education -- one that will have much more success in telling the story of higher education, with legislators approving reasonable fiscal support for the schools. However, many ingredients are needed if this is to come about. First, the governor needs to continue to appoint top-flight individuals if the board is to regain the respect and credibility it once deserved. Once appointed, the regents need to make a commitment to carry out their responsibilities throughout the year, not just at monthly meetings and at spring commencement time. And leaders at the regents schools need to become more realistic and realize there is a limit to state money and develop closer cooperation among their schools in providing a flexible, cost-effective and forward-looking educational opportunity for a wide variety of academic appetites.
Every university chancellor or president can produce a massive list of badly needed projects at his or her respective school, but there is no way for state taxpayers to fund such large projects.
The regents, in cooperation with the leadership at each state university, need to modernize the higher education program in Kansas with certain schools offering specific levels and types of educational opportunities and other schools meeting other needs. Costly duplication cannot be funded, nor is it likely to be accepted by state taxpayers.
Hopefully, the desire by the regents to develop a meaningful, well-planned and well-executed lobbying effort will pay off for the state and for the young people of Kansas.
Over the years, the state of Kansas has enjoyed the reputation of placing good educational opportunities for its young men and women at the top of its priority list. Because of a combination of factors, however, this commitment has faltered in recent years. Perhaps this week's decision by the regents will be one step among many that will be needed if Kansas is to restore its record as a national leader in sound fiscal support for higher education.