With increasing frequency, news reports out of Topeka tell of expected shortfalls in state revenue and the likelihood state funding will have to be reduced in a number of areas.
Education takes the biggest single bite out of the state's tax pie, and it stands to reason Kansas University will be forced to do some major belt-tightening if the reductions in aid take place. State funding for KU already falls behind that for KU's peer institutions in other states, so with added cuts, KU could be at an even greater disadvantage when competing with other comprehensive research-based state universities.
Some may say the budgets of KU and other state-assisted universities include enough "fat" to allow them to absorb some cuts, but how long can Kansas continue to shortchange higher education? Faculty salaries at KU already are near the bottom of Big 12 conference schools, and this means it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract and hold talented faculty members. There are many other areas in which relatively low levels of state funding are hampering the ability of Kansas Board of Regents schools to remain competitive with other institutions and be attractive to both students and faculty.
Now, these schools are going to have to figure out ways to absorb more funding reductions.
What this points out is the critical importance of private financial support if KU, or any state-assisted university, is to rise above mediocrity.
In this writer's opinion, excellence, not accepting mediocrity or being average is what will make the difference between those schools and those states that grow, excel and develop a climate of excitement from those that merely settle for whatever comes along, drifting with the times. Those who choose the latter will not be just drifting with the times; they will be falling further and further behind, unable to keep up with their competition.
Is this what Kansas residents want?
It should be noted, almost any business or school can find ways to be more efficient, save money and do more with less, but only so many cuts, reductions and savings can be accomplished without inflicting serious damage. Where KU stands at this point is difficult to assess, but if faculty salaries can be used as a yardstick, then KU is approaching a serious situation.
Excellence in higher education pays off for a state in many ways. Having superior colleges and universities is one of the best possible ways to keep a state's top young men and women in the state rather than losing them to quality schools in other parts of the country. Major industry, research facilities and well-paying businesses are more likely to want to locate in states with excellent education systems -- at K-12 levels as well as at community colleges, state universities, vocational schools and research centers.
A good educational environment is good for a state in so many ways. It may sound simple, but it's just nicer and more fun to live in a state that recognizes the importance of excellence in education.
Last weekend, there were two events, one sponsored by Baker University and the other by the KU Medical Center, that pointed out so well the importance of living in an area where there is an emphasis on excellence in higher education and what this means to the attractiveness and vitality of an area.
Baker University is the oldest university in the state and a top-flight school. Those who attend Baker would be welcomed at any major university in the country, and they receive an excellent education. Dan Lambert provides superb leadership, and more and more people in this part of the country are becoming aware of the excellence of this privately supported school.
Each year, the university honors several individuals who have distinguished themselves in business leadership, civic service or service to the school.
This year, the honorees were Sandra Lawrence, vice president of administration for Gateway 2000; Barbara and William Nelson and James Lanning, all of Kansas City. All of these individuals could work and live wherever they wish, in the United States or abroad. Among them, they have earned many graduate degrees. But job opportunities in this area attracted them.
Smart, talented and highly motivated individuals are attracted to areas and jobs where excellence is appreciated. Smart people, people who can make a difference in the quality of life are not likely to want to settle in an area where mediocrity is a way of life.
The next night, KUMC sponsored a gathering focused on "Unlocking the Future through Research." More than 1,200 people attended the event, with C. Everett Koop, former U.S. surgeon general, as the honored guest.
Sometimes, those closest to an institution fail to realize the excellence or importance of such a facility and this may be the case with KU's medical center.
KUMC is a top-flight institution and is getting better every year. The importance of research was stressed at the Kansas City event, and Koop emphasized that government funding is not going to be sufficient to make the strides necessary to find cures to present health problems as well as make life better and healthier for future generations. He said the excellence of medical research will be determined by the level of private fiscal support.
KUMC Executive Vice Chancellor Don Hagen and KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway also emphasized the importance of private fiscal support and the leadership role KUMC is playing in Kansas City, as well as the state of Kansas.
Baker University relies entirely on private financial support, and Kansas University is going to depend more and more on private support if it is to step up to the next level of academic excellence.
There is a definite correlation between the quality of life and the level of education enjoyed by those living in a given area. Likewise, there is a definite correlation between the economic growth and development of an area or a state and the quality of its educational facilities.
If Kansas is to remain competitive, our state's leaders are going to have to speak out more forcefully and realize the importance of more than mere "adequate" funding for the state's schools and colleges. Also, private citizens, businesses and foundations will need to be asked to be generous in their support of higher education, both at private and public schools.