Archive for Saturday, March 19, 2005

Simons: Kansas needs a new approach to attract university support

March 19, 2005


By now, Kansas advocates for proper funding for higher education should realize their strategy is not working and hasn't worked for some time. What's going on in Topeka these days is either a case of many lawmakers thumbing their noses at pleas for money from university leaders and the Kansas Board of Regents or evidence that educators and regents are not doing a good job in telling their stories. Or it could be a sign that a high percentage of Kansans are either tired of paying higher taxes or think there is too much waste in education.

Granted, the state is facing severe fiscal challenges, and all state-aided programs cannot have everything they want. But, because of the shortsightedness of past lawmakers, governors and the public, current officials must figure out how to come up with millions of additional dollars for K-12 education in Kansas before the April 12 deadline set by the Kansas Supreme Court.

Faced with this costly edict, many legislators are determined to find the money by cutting budgets of other state-aided programs, and higher education is an enticing target. A sizable percentage of lawmakers would much rather trim budgets than call for new or higher taxes.

The proposed cuts to higher education are severe. The schools are not going to be forced to close their doors, but their budgets could be much tighter. There may be some layoffs, and attractive new hires may be put on hold.

It is likely students and their parents will be asked to pick up an even larger part of the fiscal load to preserve whatever degree of true academic excellence the university has at this time.

The current situation or mindset did not arise overnight. It is a problem that has been growing in Kansas for years, really since former Kansas University Chancellor Franklin Murphy left the state for a distinguished academic and business career in California.

The highly popular and extremely effective Murphy left Kansas because of a clash of personalities with former Gov. George Docking and severe differences with Docking concerning policies and philosophies related to higher education funding.

Murphy was a rare individual. He enjoyed the respect of lawmakers and other educators. He was just as comfortable and effective in white tie and tails as he was in bib overalls. He was a superb speaker and could inspire residents to dream and aspire to a better Kansas.

Since that time, however, support for higher education has faced more difficult times in Topeka and throughout the state. Those carrying the education flag have not done as good a job of telling their story and getting the public to buy into this effort. It is questionable whether all recent members of the Board of Regents have spent the time to tell the story and explain the needs of higher education. Many current and recent legislators have not displayed the interest in and knowledge of what is needed for education and its impact on the state's future.

Unfortunately, governors have not given education the support it needs. They have appointed too many regents as political IOU's rather than for the skills these men and women have in telling the story of higher education and serving as astute and demanding overseers of how chancellors and presidents carry out their responsibilities.

Based on the mood today in Topeka and throughout the state, advocates for education are going to have to shift into a higher and more effective gear. It is going to take chancellors and presidents being on the road, getting to know the state and its people and spending time, not just an hour or so, jet-in and jet-out visit to a community and its leaders.

This needs to be a year-round, year-after-year mission, and others on the campuses are going to have to fill in for the longer absences of the chancellor or president. Others, such as distinguished faculty members, regents and students also need to tell their stories throughout the state.

The challenge is not going to be answered by merely hiring a consultant. Neither is "branding" the answer. Changing the official school colors is not likely to get a lawmaker to open his or her eyes and mind to the importance of education.

It will take face-to-face meetings, visits and even lengthy conversations throughout the state, not just in Lawrence, Topeka, Manhattan, Wichita, Emporia, Pittsburg, Hays and Kansas City. The message must be delivered by people the public respects and are eager to listen to.

The KU Endowment Association recently completed a highly successful, five-year capital campaign for the university, raising more than $630 million in tough economic times. The primary motivation of thousands of contributors was their love or appreciation for the school and the importance of providing funds that the state could not, or would not, provide for the school to maintain and increase its excellence.

This drive wasn't a success just because the Endowment Association and KU officials announced there was going to be a campaign and then sat back and waited for the money and pledges to roll in.

Those associated with the drive worked their tails off. They spent years planning the drive, hiring people, researching potential donors and going on the road to make calls and ask for money. It was a well-planned, long-term effort, and even though there were many challenges, the goal was met and exceeded. It was hard work, led by a chairman who would travel anywhere to tell the story of KU's needs.

A similar comprehensive, long-range effort needs to be put together to tell the story of KU and the importance of education -- from pre-kindergarten through universities -- to Kansas. It is not going to get done by merely wishing something will happen. Effective chancellors and presidents need to get on the road to tell their stories. Excellent research is needed to identify people who should be contacted and informed about the importance of education. All facets of the tax situation need to be addressed openly and honestly. Pledges need to be made to eliminate waste and duplication in the university system, and these pledges must be honored. Current legislators need to be schooled, and research needs to be done to identify potential candidates for the Legislature who would be supportive of excellence in education and realize the need for adequate funding.

Likewise the public should be made aware of the importance of whom they elect as governor and how candidates stand on education. Spokespeople for the Regents need to have heavy and respected clout.

This challenge must be a true, well-planned team effort. Success is not going to come overnight. It will take years, but if nothing is done, or the current approach is considered standard operating procedure, little or nothing is likely to be accomplished.

Changes are needed. There is little room for an incompetent, ineffective, shortsighted, lazy or complacent approach to this challenge. Without a strong strategy, what is going on in Topeka today, with or without new taxes, is likely to be the approach for years to come, just with different taxpayers and different players in the governor's office, the Legislature, on the Board of Regents and in university leadership positions.

Isn't it time for a new approach?

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