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Archive for Saturday, December 4, 1999

SATURDAY COLUMN

December 4, 1999

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In professional sports, there are the major league teams and cities and the minor league teams and cities. Just about everyone, whether it's players, team owners or cities, aspires to be in the major leagues.

In professional sports, it seems to be a case of the rich getting richer. Baseball teams, for example, such as the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves, usually are able to pay far higher salaries than teams in cities such as Kansas City. There may be a few exceptions, but in most cases, the teams whose owners have the biggest wallets end up with the best players and finish the season playing in the league championships or in the World Series.

Professional football and basketball have so-called salary caps that limit how much a team owner can spend collectively on a team. However, even with these limitations, the size of the market, stadium seating capacity, advertising revenue and other factors provide some teams and owners much more attractive earning opportunities.

Perhaps it is stretching things a bit to compare professional sports with education, but it certainly is in line to suggest higher education and even K-12 education is a highly competitive environment -- in a way, just as competitive as professional sports.

Colleges and universities, private as well as state-assisted, compete for top faculty members, research dollars, the brightest students, state tax support and private financial assistance. This competition in higher education is just as intense as the competition between private businesses or any other endeavor in the free marketplace.

This being the case, what makes the difference between the winners in higher education and those that fail to keep pace with the truly distinguished schools?

What makes a university great? How does a university develop a reputation for excellence? What state-aided schools are in the major league and what schools are relegated to the minor league?

There's probably no single factor but rather a combination of ingredients, just as there is with building a winning professional athletic team or a successful business. In higher education, these factors include a distinguished faculty -- a faculty that will attract major research dollars -- an excellent, talented student body and superior leadership and vision.

Like it or not, money is an essential. In professional sports, it's the ability of an owner to provide the funds to pay for the good coaches and players. In higher education, it's the ability of a school to pay competitive salaries to superior faculty members and to have the funds to provide faculty awards, student scholarships and good, modern equipment.

Those schools that pay above-average salaries and provide scholarships to attract and hold top students have the best odds of being looked upon as among the top-ranked, state-aided universities.

This is why the current situation in Kansas regarding the level of fiscal support Kansas legislators and the governor will approve for state universities is so critical. It is possible a school can survive a year or two of limited state funding and still be able to maintain its momentum, but this kind of situation can be devastating if it goes on too long.

The large majority of those who support Kansas University want it to be a truly distinguished school. They want KU to be in the "major leagues" among state universities. They think this is good for the state and its citizens in many, many ways.

The question is: Do Kansas residents, members of the Legislature, the governor and others want KU to be in the major leagues of state universities? Or are they content to have KU be an also-ran? Private fiscal support for KU is excellent, and those engaged in the effort to encourage private giving to KU are committed to doing an even better job in the months and years to come.

In fact, the level of private support is what has made it possible for KU to rise above the average, mediocre state-aided universities. But private funds cannot, and should not, be expected to carry the load for the state or lessen the level of support from the state.

Some months ago, Gov. Bill Graves asked cabinet agencies to cut spending by 1 percent. This came after lawmakers had said they planned to provide additional funding for all levels of education in the state, and they held out the availability of more money to help sway votes in the House and Senate in favor of reorganizing the higher education governance system.

As some predicted, it turned out to be a case of bait and switch, with education coming out on the losing end.

In just a few weeks, legislators will be gathering in Topeka to put together a blueprint for state spending. They will be developing priorities and trying to decide where scarce tax money should be spent. In the back of their mind, some House and Senate members will be thinking about getting re-elected because all members of both bodies will face re-election in November 2000.

Education deserves top priority, more than mere adequate state funding. Kansas deserves to be in the major league in education, both at the K-12 level and in higher education. If that is to be achieved, there must be sound funding.

It is time for taxpayers to tell their elected representatives in the House and Senate that they want Kansas to be looked upon as a national leader in its support for education. This is one area of competition Kansas cannot afford to lose.

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