Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius says she wants to do everything she can to help the state reach its full potential. She says she is aware of the competition from other states and that Kansas faces many difficult challenges, as well as opportunities.
One of the best things she could do to get the state on a positive roll is to pay more attention to the appointments she makes to the Kansas Board of Regents.
Every governor of every state has campaigned, at one time or another, on the commitment to help build their respective states and have their states looked upon as leaders in numerous fields. Education probably represents the biggest single slice of the tax pie in every state and education usually is among the top priorities for the nation's governors.
There are few appointments by a Kansas governor that can have as much positive payoff for the state and its taxpayers as choosing high-caliber individuals to serve on the Board of Regents.
According to the regents Web site, these nine individuals are responsible for the "control and operation of the public institutions of higher education in Kansas." They have a tremendous responsibility, and the manner in which they handle their job plays a significant role in the state's development.
The abilities, vision, courage, intelligence and commitment to their mission and how it impacts the state of Kansas is critical if the state is to remain competitive and be seen as a leader rather than a follower.
Included in the regents charge is to oversee the operation and direction of Kansas University, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, Emporia State University, Fort Hays State University, Pittsburg State University and the KU Medical Center.
They should demand superior performance by the chancellor and presidents of these schools. Apparently, some regents are nervous about "micromanaging," but in the increasingly competitive and costly business of higher education, those serving as regents have the responsibility of knowing how the "company" is running. Higher education in Kansas is just like a commercial business. Kansas taxpayers are the stockholders, and the chancellor and presidents of the universities are the managers of the departments within the higher education company. The company turns out a product (well-schooled and highly motivated graduates and timely research), and Kansas legislators provide fiscal support based on the needs of the schools and how effectively the managers justify and use the investment of their stockholders.
If managers don't measure up in private business, they are replaced. Members of a board of directors have the ultimate responsibility for a private business. This is the same position the regents hold in managing state universities. Poor performance by the directors (regents) and the managers (chancellor and presidents) often cause the stockholders (taxpayers) to demand a change in management. This is why the regents play such an important role and the governor must appoint the best possible nominees and replace those who do not measure up in carrying out their responsibilities.
Unfortunately, too many Kansas Board of Regents members have been appointed to this lofty and important board as a reward for being helpful to the governor. This includes being major money-raisers for the governor or other favors for which the governor can say "thank you" by appointing them to the Board of Regents.
Sebelius has compiled a good record in office, often with the help of a Republican-controlled Legislature. Knowledgeable observers say her attention is divided these days, with one eye focused on the affairs of Kansas and the other on her political career after she leaves the governor's office. Will she seek the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. Pat Roberts? Or set her sights on a spot on the Democratic ticket in the 2008 presidential election or possibly a spot on the president's cabinet if a Democrat is elected to the White House?
She doesn't want to do anything that might cause waves or damage her chances in either a Senate or national race.
It would seem one thing she could do - which former Gov. Bill Graves failed to do - would be to set high standards and goals for the state and set in motion actions that would indeed make Kansas a leader rather than a follower.
The quality of higher education is a hallmark of states that are moving ahead, states with vision. Competition in higher education is going to be more intense and challenging in the next 10 or 20 years than it has been in the past.
This is why it is so important for Sebelius to give the utmost attention to those she selects as regents. The upcoming appointments will play a significant role in how Kansas grows and develops in the next 25 years. The standards and excellence demanded by the regents, the respect and stature they enjoy in the state, the respect they merit from state legislators and the expectations they have for the chief executives of the state's six universities, to a large degree, will determine the competitive position of Kansas 20 or 30 years from now.
Kansas cannot afford less than the best leadership at its state universities, and the state cannot afford for the regents - or the governor - to have less than the best leadership, vision and courage to do what is right.
Good regents will demand better cooperation in the higher education system. The state and its taxpayers cannot afford waste, and they cannot afford a lack of vision. School spirit and loyalty is good, but it cannot be allowed to handicap the ability of schools to cooperate and share assets rather than pursuing costly duplication and waste.
Sebelius already has made a number of appointments to the Board of Regents and she is likely to make many more within a relatively short time, either reappointing first-term members who are eligible to serve a second four-year term or appointing new men and women to seats held by regents who have served the maximum two terms or where the governor wants to make a change.
Those currently serving as regents and the scheduled expiration dates for their terms: Richard Bond, June 2006; Janice DeBauge, June 2007; Christine Downey-Schmidt, June 2009; Frank Gaines, June 2007; Nelson Galle, June 2007; James Grier, June 2006; Dan Lykins, June 2009; Janie Perkins, June 2009; and Donna Shank, June 2006.
These men and women - and their successors - will have a great deal to do with how the state progresses in the years to come. Their decisions, their actions, the courage to do what is right, their demands that university leaders measure up is critical. For example, it should be the regents who determine how long a chancellor or president serves in office, rather than allowing those leaders to determine their own tenure. Is the individual measuring up and providing the leadership demanded by the job? Regents must have the courage to demand cooperation among the universities, and they should expect and demand sound fiscal operations.
The quality of higher education in Kansas is terribly important if the state is to move ahead. Those serving as regents have the opportunity to play a significant role in the state's development and history. That is why the governor must set aside politics, payoffs and IOU's and base her appointments on the talents, commitment and vision of those she appoints to this board.
A truly superior Board of Regents would be a great legacy for Sebelius to leave for the state.