Those opposed to the current regents system and those favoring the inclusion of Topeka's Washburn University already are engaged in various efforts to bring about massive changes in how higher education will be administered and funded in Kansas.
Considering the limited state funding for higher education and the open admissions policy under which regents schools were forced to operate, most observers would agree the Kansas system has worked well. There is no way to eliminate all politics from the education picture, but the Board of Regents is about as separate from raw partisan politics as is possible. It is far better than the systems in many states where candidates for boards of regents or curators declare their political affiliation and stage heated campaigns for election by the state's voters.
Here in Kansas, the governor nominates individuals to serve as regents, and nominees are confirmed by the Kansas Senate. It has worked well in the past, and there is no reason the system would not work well in the future.
However, many of those associated with community colleges think the regents schools consider themselves to be the elite institutions of the state, and community college boosters would like to see all state universities and colleges have the same standing. They don't like the idea of having to be more accountable for their fiscal affairs and academic offerings, but they want a unified system of higher education in the state.
The greatest push for doing away with the regents is coming from those who want Washburn University brought into the state system. Those favoring this action are hard at work trying to set the stage for a well-coordinated effort to have Washburn included in the state plan.
At a time when schools such as Kansas University, Kansas State University, Wichita State University and the other regents schools are unable to match faculty salaries at their peer institutions, and when the percentage of state tax support is dropping every year, it is difficult to see how the state could take on the added fiscal responsibility of funding Washburn University.
Already, students are being asked to pick up a greater share of the cost of an education at a regents university. Also, there is the question of duplication of academic programs.
At a time when many legislators think there already is too much duplication of course offerings at the various regents schools, how many academic programs would be eliminated at Washburn? Or would regents and lawmakers suggest academic offerings at KU, KSU and WSU be eliminated so Washburn would have an adequate number of programs to qualify as a Grade A school? Would Washburn boosters agree to close their law school? How would KU administrators, faculty, alumni and friends react if school officials were told to shut down a number of programs so these academic areas could be shifted to Washburn?
Currently, there is an interim director of the board of regents. It is interesting to note this temporary director, Tom Bryant, who comes from Pittsburg State University, believes regents schools, the 19 community colleges and Washburn must find a way to work ``seamlessly'' together in terms of funding, student recruitment, courses and standards.
This sounds as if Bryant buys into the idea of doing away with the regents and trying to put all higher education programs together in one happy family.
Excellence would be replaced by mediocrity.
According to a Topeka newspaper report, based on a lengthy interview with Bryant, the interim director said he didn't think there would be any opposition by any of the six regents schools to the admission of Washburn into the regents system if the state is willing to provide another $15 million to $25 million annually. Would this be in addition to what it would cost to fund Washburn?
This is an interesting observation and one has to wonder if, indeed, chancellors and presidents of the six regents schools have OK'd such a plan or whether this merely reflects Bryant's thoughts and his conditioning on the subject having served as a faculty member at Pittsburg State?
There may be some who thought efforts to bury the regents, take Washburn into the state system and bring some coordination to the 19 community colleges was a dead issue after the 1998 Legislature failed to approve such actions. However, proponents of lumping all post-secondary education into one pot are going to be better organized and will try to buy support for the concept by offering financial payoffs for some of the schools.
It should be remembered that the action of one legislature would not bind future lawmakers to the same strategy or levels of funding.
Those interested in the welfare of KU, those who want KU to be the true flagship of the state's system of higher education, those who believe KU must have the state funding necessary to achieve its goal of being one of the nation's superior state-aided, comprehensive research universities, and those who want to see KU retain its current academic programs should be prepared to fight for these goals. Otherwise, members of the 1999 Legislature could end up doing severe damage to KU and to KSU and to any hopes these two schools have of achieving higher levels of excellence in the years to come.
University leaders and lawmakers in other states are stressing excellence at the same time it appears many in Kansas are more concerned about pleasing as many people as possible even though such a philosophy is likely to end up lowering the academic excellence of the state's major universities.
Perhaps the answer for KU is to make major cutbacks in its enrollment, raise admission standards, select specific schools to improve with added fiscal support, provide considerably higher faculty salaries and place far more emphasis on graduate education.
In the long run, excellence will mark the difference between the winners in higher education and the also-rans. How will KU be graded 10 or 20 years from now?