Efforts were made during the last legislative session to do away with the Kansas Board of Regents, bring community colleges, vocational schools and regents schools under one administrative body, admit Washburn University into the state system and offer a sizable financial package to community colleges in exchange for their support of the plan. The Legislature's proposal also promised the current regents schools some special added funding.
Education is a political hot potato, and it is understandable that Graves and some legislative leaders preferred to postpone any major debate on the state's higher education system until after the upcoming November elections.
Too many votes are at stake on this highly controversial matter. Those associated with Johnson County Community College, for example, were not overly excited about having control and supervision of their fast-growing school taken away and put under the proposed Council on Higher Education. There are a lot of voters in Johnson County. Many of the community colleges scattered around the state did not like the prospect of some of their academic programs being cut back or eliminated.
Likewise, alumni and friends of the regents schools have many questions and concerns with any plan that would do away with the Board of Regents and place direction of the universities in the hands of the Council on Higher Education.
Like it or not, the regents schools are different from the community colleges. Their missions are different, their academic challenges and obligations are far different and their funding needs are very different.
It is easy and popular to talk about the importance of ``excellence'' in higher education or at any level of education. The governor named his new group the Governor's Task Force on Higher Education Structure for Excellence.'' Sounds good, and he has named an impressive group of individuals to serve on this committee.
Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer of Wichita, who is so eager to succeed Graves in the governor's office, and Gene Bicknell of Pittsburg, a former Republican candidate for governor, will co-chair the task force. Included in the 19-member body is a president of a regents school, a current member of the regents, a former regent, the president of Washburn University, which has lobbied hard for admission into the regents system, the legislator who chaired the legislative committee that recommended doing away with the regents and other business and education leaders.
It is difficult to understand why the regents should be buried and replaced with a larger Council on Higher Education that would oversee the state's six regents universities, 19 community colleges and 16 vocational schools, plus Washburn University.
If lawmakers believe they can find the added money to fund such an educational system, why have they been unable to find the money to fund the regents schools at a level equal to that of their peer institutions? Why are faculty salaries at Kansas University, Kansas State, Wichita State and the other regents schools considerably lower than faculty salaries at comparable schools?
What kind of a firestorm is likely to erupt when KU or Washburn officials are told they must close their law school? What will happen when community colleges are told they must cut out many of their academic programs or regents schools are told they must hand over some of their academic offerings to the community colleges?
Would members of a new body overseeing all higher education have the courage to acknowledge that different schools have different needs and different missions and because of this should be funded at significantly different levels or on different formulas?
KU is the flagship academic institution in Kansas. Would it receive the funding it needs to maintain and strengthen its position and enhance its chances to become a truly outstanding comprehensive research institution? Would KSU be given the financial support it needs to be a leader among the nation's land-grant schools on a par with or above Iowa State, Colorado State, Cornell and other top land-grant schools?
Alumni and friends, as well as students, faculty and administrators of Kansas regents schools should pay close attention to the deliberations of the governor's task force.
Graves' thinking probably is that he will be re-elected and that, after he moves into his second and last term, he will be able to recommend and support certain actions relative to higher education without having to face any negative backlash from voters.
Who knows what plan the governor may support? Who knows what members of his task force will recommend? An even bigger question is what might be the impact on KU and the other regents schools if the regents are tossed aside and the governance of these six schools plus the other community colleges and vocational schools is handled by a single body?
Maybe -- only maybe -- a new system would be better, but the only justification for a change is if a new system would be MUCH better. Little is accomplished merely by doing away with the regents to please some of those associated with other schools, to buy the approval of the community colleges and please Washburn supporters.
Those who have been so interested and so supportive of schools such as KU and KSU should take special interest in the upcoming study, recommendations and debate in the 1999 legislative session. It would be good to ask those seeking election to the Kansas House and Senate what they think about higher education and doing away with the regents.
This is a terribly important matter and deserves the best thinking and political courage to make sure any action will result in an even stronger, more effective system of higher education, properly funded with the emphasis on excellence and not merely on making people happy.