Kansas University is a fine state-aided university. In fact, it probably ranks among the upper tier of such schools. It enjoys a proud past, and both faculty and students have distinguished themselves in numerous fields. The institution is a great asset for the state of Kansas.
There are so many good things that can be said about the school, and yet, for some reason, this message is not ringing a bell with state legislators. First, there doesn't seem to be the enthusiasm, excitement and sense of electricity found on the campuses of many top universities and, second, state legislators seem to share this lack of enthusiasm when considering state aid for the school.
Something is missing.
Members of the KU Alumni Association board of directors met last week at KU, and after two days on the campus, they left KU excited and enthused about their school. They are sure to return to their respective homes eager to spread the word about KU.
Loyal KU fans usually leave Allen Fieldhouse after a KU win full of Jayhawk spirit and are quick to brag about the team, the coach and the school. This same enthusiasm was very evident after the KU football team's wins over Missouri and Nebraska and, later, after the postseason Fort Worth Bowl.
Sadly, there doesn't seem to be the same, or at least as much, spirit for the university. Sports are great, but isn't the primary purpose of the university to educate and inspire?
Why does KU have such a difficult time selling the school to state legislators, those who control the school's purse strings? Why isn't there greater enthusiasm and excitement around the state for the school?
Granted, more state tax dollars are being appropriated for the university than ever before, but the percentage of the overall operating budget being paid by state money drops every year. Private fiscal support for KU is excellent, and enrollment numbers are at a record level, even with higher tuition costs, but private money, with continually dropping state aid, is not going to move the school into the top tier of state-aided universities. The opportunity is there, but for one reason or another, something is missing.
Who is responsible for getting state lawmakers to realize the potential of KU, its benefit to the state and the importance of appropriate funding?
KU seems to have had a revolving door for its legislative lobbyists. These are the men and women who are supposed to be in daily contact with lawmakers, answering questions, providing information about the school and urging adequate state fiscal support.
For many years, the school's two lobbyists were Marlin Rein and Jon Josserand. Rein was the first to resign his position, and Josserand recently announced he planned to pursue other business/professional activities. Whether these two men left of their own accord or were asked to leave isn't certain.
Josserand carried the major lobbying load by himself for some time but eventually was joined by Janet Murguia. She enjoyed an excellent record before joining the KU team and was hired as a vice chancellor, one of the top positions on campus. She and other members of her family have compiled excellent records. Murguia had been in the Clinton administration, serving in the West Wing as a top adviser to Vice President Al Gore. She is a pro.
And yet things didn't work out and, eventually, the very talented and politically astute Murguia left for Washington, D.C., to become director of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy organization.
Now, Josserand is leaving.
Filling the holes are Paul Carttar, executive vice chancellor for external affairs, and Keith Yehle, recently hired as director of government affairs. Carttar came to KU following a fine business career, and Yehle previously served as a senior staff member for Sen. Pat Roberts.
Assisting in the KU lobbying effort will be Kathy Damron of Topeka, a lobbyist who works on a contract basis. She, too, had been a staff member for Sen. Roberts as well as former Gov. Mike Hayden.
Will this group be able to bring about any better results than the school's previous lobbyists? Time will tell, but there must be something else holding back KU's effort to turn on the positive switch with the state's lawmakers.
By the way, the chancellor spends a great deal of time lobbying for KU, along with former state senator David Adkins (now vice chancellor for external affairs at the KU Medical Center), and various Alumni Association officials and student leaders. They all are presenting the KU story to the best of their ability.
The school has hired a professional researcher to assess opinions about the university and has launched a program to establish the "official" Jayhawk mascot, school logo, school colors and official this and that.
But, again, why can't the school come up with the right chemistry to sell its story in Topeka?
Some at KU think they are doing a good job, but some senior state lawmakers question this assessment. Consider the following statements from knowledgeable Topeka lawmakers:
¢"Kansas University is struggling in the eyes of many legislators. There is little 'true love' for KU."
¢"The trust factor is real low; they can't get the comments of that professor of religion out of their craw."
¢"Yehle could do a great deal of good for KU if he is allowed to do what he knows needs to be done. However, clamps have been put on him."
¢"KU is walking a fine line."
¢"They should be focusing on the good things. For example, representatives of the medical school are doing a good job of telling the story of 'Stem Cell 101.'"
¢"Too often, KU lobbyists find themselves in the wrong position. They do not know politics and how to work with lawmakers."
¢"Too often some of those who have represented KU know as much about politics as ¢know about flying to the moon."
¢And, "Kathy is a professional; she knows what she is doing and spends a great deal of time in damage control."
These are exact quotes. There are likely to be those who think KU is doing an excellent job, but if that's the case, why is the school not seeing better results? KU officials will not like hearing this, and they are sure to say that these statements are wrong, misinformed or biased against KU.
Better to hear unfavorable and negative remarks, however, and initiate positive action than to continue to operate in the dark.
As stated at the first of this column, KU is an excellent state-aided school. Some way, the glass ceiling that seems to be holding KU back needs to be shattered so KU can grow to its full potential and be one of the nation's most outstanding state-aided institutions, a model for the rest of the country. This isn't a dream, but a definite, achievable goal.