What does it take to get Kansans excited and enthused about education, specifically higher education?
Right now, any level of added interest in education in Kansas revolves around the question of teaching evolution or creation in the state's public elementary and secondary schools and election of Kansas Board of Education members.
The creation-evolution matter has generated national and international attention, but this is not the kind of interest and excitement this writer is talking about.
The quality, excellence, of the state's system of higher education is critical to the future of the state and its people, but unfortunately, too many Kansans seem to have a ho-hum attitude toward it. Granted, those directly involved in the business of higher education -- faculty members, administrators, the Kansas Board of Regents, some state legislators and a relatively small number of others -- are intensely interested in and concerned about the quality of the state's universities. But for too many, the question and discussion of the importance of higher education to the state, its residents and the future of the state is just the same-old same-old, year after year.
Again, what does it take to get Kansans excited and concerned about higher education?
Something is going on in Minnesota that has triggered far more overall interest in higher education than is the case in Kansas. What's the difference?
Maybe a significant factor is that Minnesota has only one true major university, the University of Minnesota, and seven smaller state-related institutions, along with several highly regarded private colleges. Minnesota, with close to 4.7 million people, does not have a situation such as Kansas, with Kansas University, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, Fort Hays State University, Emporia State University and Pittsburg State University, plus a number of community colleges (now in the regents system) and additional private, church-related colleges. All this in a state of 2.5 to 3 million people.
Last week, a story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune told of University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof receiving a 3 percent salary increase along with a one-time bonus for his job performance in the past year.
Yudof's salary now is $335,000 and he received a $15,000 bonus. The Minnesota regents chairwoman said of the salary and bonus, "It's not excessive. We have the best president in the country. He's visionary, he's a genius, he's very highly admired not just by the Board of Regents, but by the people of Minnesota. He's seen as a state leader. We want to show him that we value that."
In addition to the handsome salary and bonus, which has been awarded every year since Yudof became president, the board extended his contract by a year and sweetened his deferred compensation package. If he stays at Minnesota until the fall of 2003, he will receive $350,000 in deferred compensation over five years, up from $225,000 in his last contract. These almost sound like incentives offered to popular and successful athletic coaches.
Yudof's salary of $335,000 -- tops in the Big 10 Conference -- does not include extras such as deferred compensation and a home. Other Minnesota salaries include $635,000 for Minnesota football coach Glen Mason (formerly of KU); $340,000 for basketball coach Dan Monson; $185,000 for Morrie Anderson, chancellor of the Minnesota state colleges and university system; and $120,000 for Gov. Jesse Ventura. The governor is provided a house, and coaches' salaries do not include media income and other contracts.
For comparison, Hemenway's salary is $207,489, plus a residence, a car and some other funds for expenses associated with his university responsibilities. KU basketball coach Roy Williams receives $125,612; football coach Terry Allen, $125,612; and Gov. Bill Graves, $90,000.
Does Kansas try to get by on the cheap, or is Minnesota way out of line?
It is wrong to generalize, but it's reasonable to say those people concerned about the future of the state of Minnesota, providing good jobs for Minnesota residents, the role of higher education in the state's development and Minnesota's competitive position with other states are enthused and excited about Yudof and what is happening at the University of Minnesota.
How long has it been since any member of the Kansas Board of Regents has spoken as enthusiastically as the Minnesota regent did about a chancellor or president of a Kansas university? And in so doing, point out the importance of higher education?
Does Minnesota have a better or more exceptional group of people serving as regents? Individuals who do not hold back in their enthusiasm and support or higher education? Does Gov. Jesse Ventura give more support to higher education and realize its importance to the state than does Kansas' Bill Graves?
Is there any reason to believe the University of Minnesota has more resources to work with than does KU?
KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway talks about the needs of the university and challenges facing the school. He talks about the opportunities of the KU Medical Center. But neither the public nor the regents, at least publicly, seem to get excited. The public certainly doesn't rally to the support of higher education, and state legislators don't get excited about appropriating more than mere adequate funding for higher education.
Is it a case of the media not telling an effective and believable story about the importance of higher education? Is it a matter of KU's paid lobbyists not doing a good job in their work with state legislators? Do Scandinavians attach more importance to education and higher education than the cross-section of Kansans does? Does Yudof have some special charm or vision lacking in KU leaders? Is the Minnesota board of regents far more effective than the Kansas regents? Or is there some other reason for the different attitude or value toward higher education in Minnesota compared with Kansas?
Kansas and KU cannot afford to stand still or be satisfied with the same-old, same-old, year after year. Otherwise, both KU and the state will see other universities and states pass them by, leaving them in their academic wake.
Some way or other, excitement, enthusiasm and a sense of mission need to be injected into those concerned about the level of excellence in the state's system of higher education. Kansans need to realize mediocrity is a killer in the highly competitive field of higher education.