Considerable news coverage in recent weeks has been given to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' appointment of five members to the Kansas Board of Regents.
These men and women have the responsibility of overseeing the state's six universities - Kansas University and its medical center, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, Fort Hays State University, Pittsburg State University, Emporia State University - and the state's community colleges and vocational-technical schools.
State taxpayers provide hundreds of millions of dollars every year to operate and maintain these schools. The excellence and manner in which each of these schools carries out its mission plays a critical role in how the state meets its many challenges, as well as its ability to take advantage of its opportunities.
Time and time again, knowledgeable observers make the point that the level of excellence in the state's system of higher education increases the chances the state will have a healthy economic environment, good job opportunities and an enlightened citizenry.
Considering the role and importance of higher education in Kansas, as well as the rest of the country, it would seem reasonable to believe residents of these states should be extremely interested and concerned about the individuals selected to serve as regents, curators or whatever the title might be for those charged with overseeing tax-aided institutions of higher education.
It's a very serious business. Unfortunately, in too many cases, individuals have been placed on these boards - in Kansas and elsewhere - as a reward for political favors or other less-than-positive reasons. In some states, governors make the appointments, while in other states, the regents or curators are elected in heated, partisan political elections. However they are chosen, it is a terribly important and highly prized position.
In Kansas, history shows some governors have appointed truly outstanding and highly qualified individuals to the Board of Regents, while, in other cases, it is apparent appointments were made for raw political reasons.
There seems to be one glaring error or omission in the appointment of individuals to become Kansas regents.
How long has it been since someone serving as a regent has had firsthand knowledge of what goes on at the various campuses? It's far past time a governor appointed someone who has had actual experience as a staff member at a Kansas university, either as a teacher, dean or senior administrator.
As it is, Kansas regents are flying blind. Currently, they must rely on Regents President Reggie Robinson - a paid employee - or top officials of the state's schools to spoon-feed them about the state of higher education, what is going on at the various campuses, the effectiveness of the chancellor or presidents, the morale of faculty members, the excellence or absence of leadership and vision and hundreds of other matters terribly important to assess how good a job the schools are doing.
True, Robinson and his predecessor, Kim Wilcox, both were faculty members at KU, but to a great extent, their hands are tied once they become paid employees of the board. This becomes even more complicated when the board president gets the job due to the recommendation of a sitting university chancellor or president. This is thought to be the case with Robinson, whose appointment was strongly supported by KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway.
Inasmuch as the regents are supposed to be overseeing the operation of schools that receive billions of state, federal and private money every year, and because the schools employ thousands and provide instruction to thousands more every year, wouldn't it make sense to have someone on the Board of Regents who knows what goes on inside state universities?
Rather than having to rely mainly on what they are told by Robinson, KU's Hemenway, KSU President Jon Wefald, Fort Hays State President Edward Hammond, Pittsburg State President Tom Bryant, Wichita State President Donald Beggs and KUMC's Executive Vice Chancellor Barbara Atkinson, why not have a regent who has firsthand knowledge of what goes on at the schools?
Why not a former teacher, a dean or an administrator, someone who is retired and highly respected and not in the hip pocket of the governor or any particular school? He or she would be a valuable member of the board. This is a person who knows higher education and would serve as a knowledgeable point of reference.
How do regents go about assessing the performance of a chancellor or president? There is growing grumbling in Kansas about some of these administrators, their age, their time on the job, their effectiveness, vision and record for being a leader, not a follower.
These university leaders work at the pleasure of the regents and, in a very real sense, the people of Kansas. The regents should tell these individuals when it's time to go, not allow the school leaders to determine how long they want to serve.
Far too often, an individual may complain or voice concern about something at one or more of the state universities or how a chancellor or president is performing, but they do nothing about those concerns. They should pass these thoughts along to the regents, maybe a particular regent they know or is from their part of the state, or address it to the regents chairman.
This is the best way to get action and to help the regents gain a better idea of what is taking place in Lawrence, Manhattan, Wichita, Emporia, Fort Hays, Pittsburg, Kansas City and Topeka.
If the situation on Mount Oread is similar to what exists on other regents campuses, there are many talented and committed faculty members who feel stymied. These are individuals with great skills who can do so much for their respective schools, the students and the state, but, for some reason, there isn't the encouragement, excitement, challenge or vision from the leaders at these schools to allow those individuals to blossom and show their full talents and abilities. There are many potential "bloomers," but far too many at KU and elsewhere are not receiving any nurturing in the form of encouragement, a good word or other signs of appreciation and recognition.
A longtime KU faculty member told this writer a university community such as KU really is a fiefdom. It's difficult for someone on the outside to know what is really going on. It's even difficult for those living in Lawrence who do not work at the university to know what is happening inside this tax-aided institution.
How are the regents supposed to know what is going on? How many times do regents ask faculty members, those in operations such as the KU Endowment Association or the KU Alumni Association or those involved in other schools how they think the universities and their leaders are performing?
Those serving as regents hold the key to determining the level of excellence, vision, vigor and leadership emanating from the chancellor's or presidents' offices. Does the current board have the courage to demand what is in the best interest of the state?
It's far past time for those serving as Kansas regents to take their responsibilities more seriously. It's natural to want to avoid controversies or taking a stand on ticklish issues until these situations reach a critical point. Look what happened to the disgraceful deferred maintenance situation before it became so serious the regents and Legislature were forced to act. Consider the mess at the KU Hospital and KU Medical Center and St. Luke's where KU leaders such as Hemenway and Atkinson have engaged and favored a plan that would weaken the medical school and the hospital.
Now, state legislators are involved in this sad and unnecessary medical civil war because there was not the leadership to put a stop to the situation. KU is likely to pay a heavy price in the upcoming legislative session because of the careless, highly questionable manner in which this matter has been handled.
Legislators do not like the way the plan was hatched in secrecy, they do not like the lack of leadership and they don't like the idea of a plan or giveaway that would weaken the KU medical school and hospital and likely end up cutting back the number of medical graduates to serve the state.
Again, it's past time for the regents to do a better job in overseeing the schools and demanding excellent performance and results from those leading the institutions. Will the governor's most recent appointments bring any fresh air and energy to the Board of Regents, or will the board continue to be passive and uninformed in how it carries out its responsibilities?