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Archive for Sunday, May 4, 2003

Derailed debate

May 4, 2003

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The floor of the Kansas Senate isn't the appropriate venue to debate the content of a single Kansas University course.

Among veteran observers of the Kansas Legislature, the Kansas Senate often is viewed as being the grownup.

While the House seems to fly off on legislative tangents or pass bills just to make a statement, the Senate is the adult who returns the debate to a more rationale plain.

On Friday, those roles appear to have been reversed.

Whether or not you agree that the House's approval of legalizing slot machines at several Kansas locations is a good idea, you have to at least give the body credit for focusing on the issue of greatest concern to the future of the state: balancing the budget.

On the other side of the Capitol, senators were engaging in an emotional and unproductive debate over the course content and moral standards of a Kansas University professor.

State Sen. Susan Wagle has launched a crusade that has taken an increasingly personal tone against KU professor Dennis Dailey and a popular course he teaches on human sexuality. Using mostly anonymous accounts from students and a report from a private investigator who was hired by someone who also doesn't want to be identified, Wagle used the Senate floor as a bully pulpit for accusations about Dailey and his supposed opinions on pedophilia and other matters.

Late Friday, the Senate succumbed to Wagle's argument and approved a budget cleanup bill that included her amendment requiring universities to create policies on sexual harassment in sexuality classes and on teaching about pedophilia. On Saturday the Senate's budget bill was headed to a conference committee to try to reconcile it with the measure passed by the House, which didn't address the sexuality issue.

Janet Murguia, KU's executive vice chancellor for public relations, hit the nail on the head Friday when she said it was unfortunate Wagle hadn't come to KU officials to discuss her concerns before taking the matter to the Senate floor. The senator is tossing around accusations that are mostly anonymous and obviously open to personal interpretation rather than trying to get to the facts of the matter.

Although thousands of KU students have taken Dailey's classes and many now rave about its content and how much they learned, it's possible that some students have been offended. Investigation of the complaints Wagle has received probably is warranted, but the debate that has taken place on the Senate floor does nothing to separate fact from personal perception or to resolve the issue. It only uses questionable evidence to whip up public emotions and give publicity to a senator who apparently is trying to appeal to her socially conservative constituency.

It should be noted that some KU faculty members are critical of Dailey and that many Kansas residents might be startled or even shocked by Dailey's classroom presentations and comments. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate this highly emotional matter has become a matter of debate in the Kansas Legislature.

Except in extreme circumstances, lawmakers shouldn't become involved in the details of course offerings and content. This is a responsibility of university administrators. It appears some at KU might not have exercised sufficient oversight in this area, thereby allowing the Dailey situation to escalate to its current embarrassing profile. Surely KU officials were aware of the controversy over Dailey's course and could have issued a statement either supporting the teacher or indicating he had been asked to adjust his teaching techniques.

House and Senate conferees may have completed their budget negotiations by the time this is published. If they have approved a budget bill, hopefully it does not include the amendment aimed at Dailey. If they have not reached a budget compromise, they should not let their deliberations be waylaid by further discussion of this matter. This issue deserves a more rational, less emotional examination of the facts, after which legislative action can be considered if lawmakers think it is warranted. In the meantime, both houses need to give their full attention to the financial problems facing the state.

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