The cover story in this week's U.S. News and World Report shows a young man wearing a mortarboard with a price tag of $133,000, along with the headline "Is College Worth It? Besides a degree, are you really getting what you paid for?"
The magazine devotes considerable space to the question of how well America's colleges and universities are measuring up in their efforts to have young men and women leave their respective schools smarter or better informed than they were when they arrived. It's a tough question, and, as might be expected, there is great disagreement within the academic community, as well as among the general public, as to what results should be expected from a costly college education.
The same question of whether a college education is worth the cost could be asked in a different way about the Kansas Board of Regents. How much do these men and women know about the operations and excellence of the state's "regents schools"? They are charged with "the control and operation of the public institutions of higher learning in Kansas," but how much do they really know about the schools they are supposed to oversee?
Based on the current, embarrassing mess at the Kansas University Medical Center, it is fairly obvious the regents have been asleep on the job, don't care what is going on or have total confidence in Chancellor Robert Hemenway and the other presidents to always do the right thing and not bother the regents with the details.
It's probably a combination of all three and, consequently, the state universities and Kansas taxpayers are being shortchanged by a lazy or uninterested Board of Regents.
It's time for Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to realize the important role of the regents and appoint men and women to this body who command the respect of knowledgeable Kansas residents, state legislators and those on the various campuses. It's not a place for a governor to hand out appointments as IOUs or payoffs for political help.
Hemenway and Executive Vice Chancellor Barbara Atkinson have been engaged in a behind-the-scenes plan to give away the brand name of KU medical school and, in the process, probably do significant damage to the school, the KU Hospital and the state.
Unfortunately, both Hemenway and Atkinson have been less than honest and forthright about playing their game. They have not told the whole story to medical center and hospital faculty members, and they were not straightforward, during early talks, with state legislators who have the responsibility of making sure state property and facilities are handled properly. They did not explain the plan to regents until too late in the game, and they have not been open with the public.
They claim they would not stand for anything that would harm the university, the medical school or the hospital, but they have participated in meetings since last summer that would weaken the medical school. Their arguments that KU needs to affiliate with St. Luke's to get the additional doctors it needs and additional cancer patients to justify the National Cancer Center designation, that a March 31 deadline is crucial to the deal and other justifications all are weak and hollow.
It's puzzling, as well as disappointing, that these two senior officials would not be more concerned about the long-range welfare of their school rather than being willing to jump to the wishes of a handful of powerful Kansas City business and philanthropic leaders. There is an ugly arrogance by those trying to jam their plan down the throats of those at KU Hospital and some at the medical school who are questioning or opposing the plan.
Atkinson now acknowledges that an agreement already has been reached with St. Luke's, in effect telling state lawmakers she really doesn't care about any concerns they may have. She and her handful of supporters intend to move ahead on the hijacking of the medical school, regardless of the negative fallout. Reports indicate Atkinson and Hemenway may have made commitments they cannot honor. Some indicate the chancellor and executive vice chancellor are increasingly nervous that their plan is starting to unravel.
Where are the regents? Don't they wonder what is going on? Obviously, some regents don't care. When questioned about what is going on at the medical center, former Regents Chairman Dick Bond said he didn't think it was the role of regents to micromanage the universities. He said he relied on the chancellor to do the right thing.
What does it take for the regents to be interested if the transactions the chancellor and Atkinson have been promoting don't get their attention? If selling off or weakening the medical school or selling KU Hospital, as has been suggested by one state senator, does not merit the regents' attention, what does? If the state is looking for ways to pay the repair bills on university campuses, why not sell the KU School of Law's brand name and accompanying academic rights to Washburn University? Maybe the KU School of Business could be sold to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Two very senior and nationally recognized faculty members are leaving the KU medical school, and there may be more. Officers of KU Hospital have sent a formal message to state legislators, saying they oppose the proposed action. Atkinson turned down a commitment from KU Hospital for $400 million over a 10-year period in favor of a nebulous offer of about $150 million from some Kansas City individuals and about $100 million from St. Luke's in exchange for 100 residents a year for 10 years.
Millions upon millions of dollars and the strength and reputation of the medical school are at stake, and Bond and other regents don't think they need to get involved. Where is Reggie Robinson, the president of the Board of Regents? Can't he get the attention of the nine men and women who serve as regents?
Based on various reports, the regents don't demand much from the chancellor and presidents. In fact, some say there is far too much "window dressing" at the regents offices. A chancellor or president appears before the regents to deliver what might be called a "state of the university" message once a year when regents conduct performance reviews of the top officials, and that's about it. It is understood there are few, if any, established goals, no comparisons to regional or national standards or other detailed, well-founded standards to measure how well the state's universities are being run or the success of their academic programs. Few proactive policies are advanced.
Consider the $600 million repair bill facing the state on the campuses of the regents universities. How could regents have allowed this situation to get to this stage? Granted, the Legislature has played a role, but so have the chancellor, the presidents and the regents.
If the regents, chancellor and presidents had more clout, more respect and more leadership, they would have marshaled public support, told their story and, one way or another, initiated a plan to solve the situation.
There are nine individuals serving on the Board of Regents. The governor makes the appointments. Former Gov. Bill Graves had an opportunity to bring about a major change in the image of the regents with the caliber of individuals he appointed to this important body. He did little.
The terms of three current regents expired last June and three more expire next June. Some of these regents have served just one term and are eligible for another four-year term, and others have completed their second term and can't be reappointed.
After making those six appointments, Sebelius will have appointed or reappointed all nine members of the next Board of Regents. This body has a tremendous long-term impact, not only on state universities but also on the welfare and growth of the state. It's all controlled by Sebelius.
If the current regents system is flawed - as indicated by recent boards and their inability, weakness or passive manner and inability to be a positive, visionary force for higher education - then maybe it's time to take a look at how the regents are structured and the role the board plays.
It should not be a political circus. The governor must give serious attention to those she appoints. This same reasoning applies to other bodies over which the governor can exercise great power, such as the KU Hospital Authority. A governor, if he or she desires, can pack a board as a way to influence its actions. The state deserves something better, and the KU Hospital Authority may be a target of Sebelius, who would like to influence the board's actions.
Again, look at the medical center and KU Hospital mess and the $600 million repair bill at state universities as just two examples of an irresponsible or careless performance by the Board of Regents.
Sebelius has an opportunity right now to demonstrate just now committed she is to building a powerful, respected, courageous, independent Board of Regents for the good of our state universities as well as the state as a whole.