Archive for Sunday, February 21, 1999

WHO KNOWS BEST?

February 21, 1999

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Kansas legislators seem to think they know better than university leaders how important increases in faculty salaries are.

Who would you think better understands the financial needs and priorities at state universities? The Kansas Board of Regents or a state legislator?

Members of the House Appropriations Com-mittee apparently think legislators know best.

It's the Kansas Legislature's job to set appropriations for state universities, but what the House committee did last week was make a funding decision that directly affects university policy. Instead of approving the governor's proposed $2.5 million fund for faculty salary increases, the committee decided it would rather dedicate money to capital improvement projects.

So state universities will have improved and better-maintained buildings. But will they have an excellent and well-trained faculty to teach in those buildings?

After the vote, Regent Ken Havner of Hays said the committee had basically set new budget priorities for the regents' universities. Because they are concerned about attracting and retaining top faculty members, the regents have given top priority to improving faculty salaries, which now average 12 percent less than at similar institutions in other states.

But, in their wisdom, committee members have decided that buildings are more important. Rep. George Dean, D-Wichita, said the salary money could be added to the budget later in the session when it would be difficult to obtain funding for the building projects. To observers of past legislative sessions, it sounds as if Dean is grasping at straws. It's true that state salaries often are decided late in the session, but there certainly is no record of floor debate in the House or Senate providing any windfall for university faculty.

On the contrary, legislators seem determined to give university faculty the same salary increases as all other unclassified state employees. That amount probably will be decided late in the session, but like the capital improvement projects approved by the committee Thursday, a special $2.5 million salary pool would be unlikely to be added to the regents' budget later.

Another member of the House committee seemed to believe that universities were exaggerating their problem to strengthen their case for higher faculty salaries.

"Maybe this is not quite as bad as it appears," said Rep. Mike Farmer, R-Wichita. "I look at the numbers and I don't see the problem. I don't see the crisis."

Perhaps Farmer doesn't see a crisis, but university administrators, who are in a position to know, certainly do. It's worth noting that Farmer was a member of last year's House Select Committee on Higher Education that formulated an elaborate and expensive plan to restructure higher education governance, including abolishing the board of regents. The plan died in the Kansas Senate and was never supported by the regents. Could it be payback time?

Whatever the reason, the refusal to bring faculty salaries up to competitive levels is hurting state universities. Somehow state legislators must be convinced that the campus brain drain is real and damaging to the quality of education at regents' universities. It's not fair or wise to hold faculty members hostage to force changes in higher education governance or to make unlikely promises about adding funding later.

Students at state universities will be the immediate losers, but over time, a decline in the quality of higher education will be damaging to Kansas' future.

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