Archive for Saturday, August 2, 2003

State universities must strive for educational excellence

August 2, 2003


Last week, this writer asked whether, given the state's current fiscal restraints, it might be appropriate to consider a change in the way the Kansas Board of Regents universities are administered. Presently, there are presidents at Kansas State University, Emporia State University, Wichita State University, Fort Hays State University and Pittsburg State University and a chancellor at Kansas University.

These university administrators all report to the Board of Regents, a governor-appointed board of men and women without any real experience in the field of higher education. Often, appointments to this highly regarded organization are based on political IOUs, and the body is fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Care also is taken to make sure all congressional districts are represented on the board.

As it works now, the responsibility of each president and chancellor is to take care of his or her own school, fight for adequate state appropriations and try to offer as broad an educational menu as possible. Alumni and friends of each school also follow this plan of action, and there is much lobbying of state lawmakers in an effort to receive increased funding and appropriations for capital improvements on the respective campuses.

Unfortunately, far too little thought is given to what is in the best interests of the state and how best to ensure the young people of the state have the opportunity to be exposed to the best possible academic offerings, based on their individual abilities and their eagerness to learn.

There is much duplication of academic offerings at state universities, and, so far as the general public is aware, little in the way of a master plan for higher education.

Would it be a good idea to have a single administrator over all the state universities with individual chancellors or presidents in top positions at each school? This way there would be a well-trained, experienced educator overseeing all the state universities, working with all the schools to figure out how to design and operate a well-coordinated, efficient university system. This person would be the link between the universities and the Board of Regents.

This official wouldn't favor one school over another but would have the responsibility to give the people of Kansas the best possible system of higher education, getting the maximum level of academic excellence out of each tax dollar.

Generally speaking, this all makes good sense. However, there is one major hurdle that would have to be overcome. With so much duplication of offerings among the schools, would administrators, students, alumni and friends be willing to give up some of their offerings in order to achieve overall efficiency of state tax dollars?

At the same time, it would be a major mistake and extremely shortsighted not to stress excellence in whatever plan might be adopted. A master plan that achieved balance and efficiency at the expense of excellence would be a disservice to the state and its young people.

There would need to be a true flagship institution offering the broadest comprehensive undergraduate and graduate programs, perhaps with an emphasis on postgraduate and research programs. However, each of the other regents universities would focus on their areas of excellence within their own programs. In fact, excellence should be the hallmark or goal of every regents university, but it should be accomplished as part of an overall master plan.

Again, in times of tight fiscal restraints, isn't it a good time to take a hard look at the state's system of higher education? What if Kansas had the opportunity to start all over again, plan what it saw as the ideal system of higher education, one that would be a model and dream for every other state? It would be a system that provided an excellent educational environment, minimal duplication of programs and high efficiency, a program that would attract top faculty members and foster programs that meet the needs and skills of all students.

That's what Kansas should strive for with its university system.

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