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Archive for Saturday, February 22, 1997

SATURDAY COLUMN

February 22, 1997

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The question of how best to govern higher education in Kansas is receiving much attention from Kansas legislators. What is the best way to make sure Kansas students, taxpayers and the state in general all are getting the best possible educational system?

The debate centers on the question of who should manage post-secondary education in the state. Should it be the Kansas Board of Regents, which now oversees the state's six universities? Or should a new 11-member joint advisory committee, made up of regents and individuals serving on the Kansas Board of Education, be created? Or should the state establish a coordinating board for all post-secondary education that would preside over local community colleges and the Board of Regents?

Late this week, state regents announced they would be willing to take on the added responsibility of coordinating the state's community colleges.

This was not done with any enthusiasm but rather as a means to make sure the regents remain in a leadership position for post-secondary education in Kansas. The regents rightfully believe they should have authority over Kansas higher education, but as noted above, others have various blueprints for the coordination of higher education that would minimize, or possibly eliminate, the regents.

It is likely those who now control the community colleges do not like the idea of the regents assuming control of these schools, and their supporters have become a powerful force in the state. Each city in which a community college is located is going to fight as hard as it can to protect the school and seek even more state fiscal support. Sheila Frahm, the former Kansas lieutenant governor and short-term U.S. senator, was recently hired to head the state association of community colleges, and she will be an effective leader for these schools.

It is hard to understand the thinking of Reps. Tom Sloan and Ralph Tanner, both of Douglas County, who sponsored House Bill 2146, which would delete the authority of the regents and hire an executive director and allow appointment of a commission of higher education to replace the regents executive director.

Perhaps the legislation was prompted by the tendency of some recent executive directors to assume too much authority in the affairs of the regents. These men have failed to realize they work at the direction of the regents, not the other way around. Several executive directors have tried to develop policy and direction for the regents rather than letting regents take the lead. This has not been good and has weakened the Board of Regents in the eyes of legislators, university chancellors and presidents, and many others throughout the state. Maybe Sloan and Tanner want to make a point concerning the actions and behavior of the regents executive directors.

Another proposal before legislators would eliminate all constitutional references to the Kansas Board of Education and the Board of Regents and establish a new system of governing higher education.

Still another measure would require each state university to be represented by at least one, but not more than two alumni on the Board of Regents.

Yet another bill would completely eliminate the Board of Regents.

It is in this political climate that the regents agreed to support a bill that would place the coordination of the community colleges under the jurisdiction of the regents. Regents said they do not plan to become actively involved in encouraging passage of this bill, but they certainly plan to protect and preserve the role and mission of the Board of Regents.

It would be a major mistake to abolish the Board of Regents. Many educational leaders in other states look at the Kansas regents system as one of the best and wish their states had similar systems.

The Kansas plan, however, could be improved or strengthened. Some years ago, the regents selection process was changed. In previous years, a governor had the freedom to select whomever he wished, no matter where nominees lived or what Kansas college or university they may have attended.

This was changed due to the claim by some that too many regents were Kansas University graduates.

The governor now must make sure each congressional district is represented on the regents board, and more attention is given to make sure there is a balance among which state universities members attended.

The governor should be allowed to select the best possible men and women to serve as regents rather than having to consider geography or which school a regent nominee attended.

This situation, plus the desire by some executive directors to assume a more powerful role than they should, are major weaknesses of the regents. But even with these shortcomings, the present system of oversight of the regents schools is far better than what exists in other states. Kansas legislators should not tamper with the system.

Partisan politics is reduced to a minimum on the nine-member board, there are not statewide political contests as is the case in other states, and each chancellor or president of a state university knows he or she answers to the regents for direction and supervision.

If supervision of the state's community colleges is placed under the regents, the governor has even more pressure to appoint the best possible men and women to this important body, which would be entrusted with the critical responsibility of coordinating and directing the state's post-secondary educational system.

And just as important, those appointed as regents need to do a far better job of telling and selling the story of higher education. In the past, too many who have been appointed to the regents have basked in the prestige that comes with such an appointment but have done little, other than attend regents meetings, to gain state legislative support for higher education.

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