It's no secret that some Kansas legislators have pet projects or pet peeves that influence about every vote they make. But questions posed to Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway Monday after he testified in favor of the governor's proposed budget for higher education seem to indicate that special agendas may be overshadowing sound decision-making.
The chancellor was in Topeka to talk to legislators about the good work KU is doing in the state and to support the modest increase in the Kansas Board of Regents budget recommended by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius . When he finished his presentation, however, subcommittee members didn't seem to have the budget on their minds.
Rep. Bonnie Huy, R-Wichita, asked Hemenway to comment on a student throwing a pie at conservative columnist Ann Coulter when she spoke at KU last March. Not only was Huy's question way off the subject, but it also was based on faulty information. No pie was thrown at the Lied Center lecture.
Then came Rep. Becky Hutchins, R-Holton, asking Barbara Atkinson, executive vice chancellor and dean of the KU School of Medicine whether there were any illegal immigrants at the school. Atkinson politely said she didn't know but would check.
Hutchins is seeking passage of a bill that would repeal a 2004 law that offers in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants who meet other resident admission requirements and are seeking legal immigration status. According to current law, KU would be doing nothing wrong by allowing qualified illegal immigrants to enroll as resident students, and any change in that law is the responsibility of the Legislature, not KU. So what is the point of Hutchins question?
Both of these cases raise suspicions that the legislators may allow factors not related to KU's operation or contributions to the state to influence their decisions on funding for the university. It would be wrong to toy with the higher education budget in an effort to punish or rebuke the university for perceived flaws that either didn't occur or were out of their control. The questions being asked indicate there are a number of lawmakers who are aware of KU's achievements but may be more concerned about the school's image and management. This is not good.
The good news is that KU officials have an opportunity to quell some unfounded rumors and clear up some misperceptions that might bias legislators' consideration of their budget. Hemenway and Atkinson did the right thing by responding patiently and respectfully to the questions that were posed, but it's discouraging to see a discussion of an issue as important as higher education funding be so sidetracked by side issues and personal agendas.