Archive for Saturday, February 24, 2001

Saturday column

Weak financial foundation puts Kansas University in shaky condition

February 24, 2001


Generally speaking, morale at Kansas University is not too good these days. There doesn't seem to be the spark, enthusiasm and excitement among a wide cross-section of those interested in the school.

This spark, enthusiasm and excitement used to be a trademark of KU, its students, faculty and alumni, but today, it is substantially muted. If this opinion is correct, it could be a critical time for the university.

Part of the problem, a large share of the problem, revolves around money, with leadership and vision being another part of the equation.

Although many people in positions of leadership the governor, legislators, leaders in our state universities and colleges, lobbyists for alumni and students of state colleges and universities and others all talk about the need for better financing for the state's schools, there is little positive action.

In the meantime, talented faculty members at schools such as KU are far more likely to leave the school for considerably higher salaries being offered by other schools. This is particularly true among younger teachers and researchers. Those in this category have a pretty good idea of what they can expect in the way of earnings if they were to remain at KU.

They then consider the difference between what they are making at KU and what is being offered by another school. They multiply this difference by the number of years they intend to stay in the classroom or laboratory. Most often, this totals a substantial difference, one that many cannot afford to pass up.

They may like living in Lawrence, but when it comes to the reality of smaller paychecks, they must take into consideration their families and the opportunities those extra dollars will provide.

So often, governors and legislators will talk of their commitment to adequate funding for higher education but, before the added dollars start being reflected in paychecks, something happens to lower the payoff. In some cases, specific programs have been authorized only to have legislators in subsequent sessions change or eliminate the funding.

It is frustrating for those interested in the welfare of KU and other state-assisted schools to know just what needs to be done to obtain state funding necessary to place KU or Kansas State University on par with their peer institutions. Loyalty to KU and an appreciation for the lifestyle of Lawrence can be stretched only so far before offers from other schools become too attractive to turn down.

This is going to happen more frequently and already presents a very dangerous situation for KU officials when it comes to younger faculty members who are likely to become "all-stars" in a relatively short time. KU cannot afford to lose men and women in this category. Older faculty members, who have made a commitment to remain at KU, are less likely to jump at the bait of a higher salary, but it could prove to be a fatal mistake for universities to take these more-senior teachers and researchers for granted. They deserve salaries similar to those at KU's peer institutions.

Money not only is a problem for the academic side of the university, but the tight fiscal situation facing the KU Athletics Department is nearing the critical stage. As noted in last week's Saturday Column, football and basketball are the only sports that pay their own way, but the profit margin from football is marginal, particularly compared with schools such as Kansas State, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

This is what is causing KU officials to give serious consideration to moving next fall's KU-Missouri game to Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium. This is a bad move, and it is wrong to take the game off the KU campus. College games should remain on college campuses.

Because it is a KU "home" game, KU officials can make the call on where the game will be played. The following year, when it is a Missouri home game, chances are almost nil that MU officials will want to move it off the Columbia campus.

It is unfortunate the football program finds itself in this position, and it isn't necessarily all the fault of coach Terry Allen. It's a combination of factors that have developed over the years but have not been addressed and now present a bad situation.

The athletics matter is pretty much confined to situations and personnel on the campus, aside from the level of private financial support. KU leaders, from the chancellor to the athletics director and the coaches, are the ones who control and have or don't have the vision and commitment to improve the situation. This has proven to be the case at many other universities.

However, in regard to the faculty pay situation and proper state funding for the university, much of the responsibility for this matter lies at the feet of the governor and those in the Kansas Legislature. They are the ones who call the shots!

Although state tax dollars account for only about 30 percent of KU's operating budget, it's this 30 percent that sets the stage for the rest of the financial pie.

If the state is perceived to be meeting its funding obligation, there is a far better chance alumni and friends of the school will want to increase their private support. Private sources do not want to be in the position of paying for those expenses that should be the responsibility of the state. Better faculty salaries mean better faculty members, and this, in turn, is likely to result in increased research dollars for the university. Better faculty members will attract better students, and the better the overall university, the better job the institution can do in being the primary engine that drives the state's economy.

But again, it is a puzzle why the governor and legislators do not realize the importance of adequate state funding. To a degree, this is out of the hands of university leaders. On the other hand, the embarrassing fiscal condition within the Athletics Department is entirely in the hands of university people.

These situations the level of state funding, the plight of the Athletics Department, the apparent inability to improve these situations and the question of leadership and vision all combine to bring about the perceived lack of spark, enthusiasm and excitement that usually is a hallmark of KU.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.