Archive for Saturday, August 13, 2005

Simons: Public involvement in Kansas education system crucial

August 13, 2005

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From all reports, the three individuals Gov. Kathleen Sebelius appointed to serve as members of the Kansas Board of Regents are fine individuals and good citizens.

Saturday Columns

It is hoped that, at the end of their respective terms of service, they will have compiled an excellent record of helping Kansas higher education reach new levels of excellence.

Several years after former KU Chancellor Franklin Murphy left Kansas to become chancellor of UCLA, he noted the role and importance of the regents in California.

The highly popular and respected Murphy said he thought being named a regent in California was the closest thing to being "knighted." It was a highly sought-after appointment and considered one of the highest honors a citizen could receive.

Again, the individuals Sebelius selected for the critically important Board of Regents are good people, but do they have the public image, clout, leadership and respect needed to make the public pay attention when they urge them to be supportive of higher education?

A few days ago, this writer was at a Lawrence dinner gathering, and the subject of higher education occupied a significant part of the evening. Kansas University faculty were represented, and the major question focused on how to get Kansans to support higher education at a level that would place KU and other state schools among the nation's leaders - at least above average among their peer institutions.

There were a lot of suggestions. However, it was agreed it is essential to get people from off the campus, not university employees, to be effective spokespeople for higher education. Residents throughout the state must make it clear they want their schools - K-12 and universities - to be properly funded. KU employees often are looked upon as merely looking after their own self-interest when they ask for more money.

Off campus spokespeople can say, "We have no chips in the game; we're just interested in making our schools as good as possible. We want more than just 'adequate' funding, and we want sound, forward-looking and visionary leadership."

It is not an easy sale to make, and it would take committed individuals, people who are highly respected for their achievements and sound thinking. It also takes men and women on the Board of Regents who merit the respect of the public and state legislators and men and women who have the courage, vision and visibility to get the public to buy into the importance of higher education.

Being a regent in Kansas should be every bit as important as being a regent in California or any other state. What have Kansas governors looked for in the past when appointing individuals to serve on the Board of Regents? What factors did Gov. Sebelius take into consideration in making her last three appointments?

Hopefully, she was looking for the best possible three individuals, regardless of what school they attended or other factors. Kansas cannot afford a second-class Board of Regents, and Kansas cannot afford to fall behind in the intense competition from other states in offering a superior system of higher education.

It is important to have men and women representing the state's regents institutions who are effective spokespeople for their schools, but just as important and, in some cases more important, is to have individuals from the public who are strong, courageous proponents of higher education. Several years ago, a highly ballyhooed group of Kansans was put together to sell the importance of properly funding higher education, but little has been heard from this group. So far, it hasn't made much of a public impact. In fact, it has been a disappointment in the eyes of many.

Some way, somehow, the public must get exercised if there is to be any real change in the thinking about higher education in Kansas. So far, there has been too much talk and too little action.

When will the time come when the state's level of excellence in higher education will be one of Kansas' truly distinguishing and most valuable assets?

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