Although a new plan to revise higher education governance is drawing broad support, there still are areas of concern
A new plan to revamp higher education governance in Kansas has a number of strong points and broader support from government and education officials than any plan in recent memory, but areas of concern remain.
The Governor's Task Force on Higher Education Structure for Excellence finished its work on Thursday and plans only to review final wording of its report before submitting it to Graves during the first week of January. Of the task force's 19 members, 17 voted in favor of the plan. Only the two members with ties to Washburn University dissented.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the task force proposal is the creation of a nine-member board of trustees to do planning, set policy and resolve problems for the state's 19 community colleges. Although community colleges are under the auspices of the Kansas State Board of Education, they are primarily governed by local boards of trustees. And although they receive considerable state funding, that money is distributed according to the number of credit hours being taught at the schools, without much review of what those courses are. They can be academic basics or hobby classes.
The new statewide board of trustees, which would be appointed by the governor, would provide better coordination among community colleges and between community colleges and the state. Hopefully the board would eliminate some of the geographical overlap that has been caused by community colleges offering classes at far-flung off-campus locations and would make sure that state tax dollars are being spent in an efficient and beneficial manner.
The community college board would more or less be a counterpart of the Kansas Board of Regents, which would continue to govern state universities under the task force plan. However, a new board -- a seven-member higher education coordinating council, also appointed by the governor -- would be created to do strategic planning, data collection and a unified budget analysis for both the regents schools and the community colleges.
The regents would have budgetary oversight for Washburn, but the school would still be governed by its own board. It also would have the right to take disputes with the regents directly to the coordinating council. This setup was designed to recognize Washburn's special status as a municipal university, but it was not acceptable to Jerry Farley, Washburn's president, or Bill Wagnon, a Washburn professor and member of the state board of education, who were the only members of the task force to vote against the plan. They wanted Washburn to be directly responsible to the coordinating council, without budgetary supervision from the regents.
It's notable that among those who voted for the task force plan were Ken Havner, a member of the board of regents; and Kansas State University President Jon Wefald. Although they apparently are convinced that the addition of a coordinating council won't detract from the mission of the regents, some observers are wondering whether the council will be anything more than an additional layer of administration that will complicate university operations and dilute the influence of the board of regents.
Another supporter of the task force plan is Rep. David Adkins, R-Leawood, who chaired a House special committee on higher education governance in the last session. The proposal that came out of that committee rested heavily on a large funding package designed to provide property tax relief for communities that are supporting community colleges. It will be interesting to see what funding proposals accompany the current task force's plan when it is introduced in the Legislature.
Adkins noted that this plan has a better chance of approval "because this one will come from the governor." Graves' lack of enthusiasm for the special House committee's plan was noticeable and his support certainly is crucial to the success of the latest plan.
Creating a new board to oversee and coordinate community colleges is a strong move. Adding another layer of bureaucracy to higher education governance is questionable. Graves and the Legislature should be careful that the plan they pursue solves the problems that need to be solved without creating new problems that didn't exist before.