Over the past 13 years, during which I have served as a faculty member at Kansas University, I have watched the gradual erosion of state financial support for the university as well as the too frequent adversarial confrontations between KU and the Legislature. This tension between the state and the state university are unfortunate in the extreme. Often, it seems, the parties forget that all of them are supposed to work together to serve the best interests of the people of Kansas.
In 1864, the Legislature enacted legislation to create the state university at Lawrence, what we now know as KU. Section 2 of that act stated that "the object of the university shall be to provide the inhabitants of this State with the means of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the various branches of literature, science and the arts."
From its beginning, the university interpreted this charge not only as requiring that the university be a teaching university but also that it be a university that conducted research that produced results for the benefit of the state and its people. Many of our earliest faculty were notable scientists and scholars whose work helped to establish the oil industry in Kansas as well as assisting the various professions like law and medicine to perform their tasks more effectively.
There can be no doubt that generations of KU faculty have made the lives of Kansas residents better, both through their teaching and through their research. This remains the purpose of KU today. Put in simple terms, whether we call KU a state-assisted or simply a state university, it must be at all times a university in the public interest.
The recent controversy over the proposed affiliation between KU Medical Center and St. Luke's Hospital ought to be viewed in this context. Let us assume that both sides of this controversy are acting in good faith. Proponents of the affiliation see the change as necessary to the research activities of the medical center and the university as a whole. Certainly, the establishment of a center for cancer research in Kansas City will benefit many Kansans who suffer the terrible toll cancer takes. This affiliation will also bring substantial financial benefits to the medical center and the university, benefits that, in an era of reduced budgets, are necessary to the continued operation of the medical center and KU.
Opponents of the proposed affiliation argue that it will harm the continued operations of KU Hospital by "giving away the KU Hospital brand." This may well be true and, if so, it would be a serious problem for the people of Kansas. Here, again, it would seem that one of the most problematic aspects of the controversy turns, at least in part, on the need to secure the funding for KU Hospital. Dilution of the hospital's brand could lead to a decline in the patient population and reduced revenues.
When I look at the problem in this way, it seems to me that there is, in fact, something to be said for both sides. The university has an obligation to the people of Kansas to do research, both to produce breakthroughs that will help Kansans and to fund its operations in a period when state funding is far too low. At the same time, it is also important to the people of Kansas that KU Hospital survive and prosper. If the proposed affiliation with St. Luke's may put this survival in jeopardy, then, here, too, there is a problem.
University officials believe that they are in the right in this matter. Those legislators and members of the public who oppose this affiliation also believe they are in the right. If KU administrators are correct in their belief that an affiliation with St. Luke's is necessary for the university to carry out its mission, then it should be their decision to go forward. On the other hand, if the Legislature, which controls KU Hospital, fears that an affiliation will cause financial problems for the hospital, then they, too, have an obligation to act.
But what action should they take? If they stop the affiliation and, thereby, harm the university, they harm the people of Kansas as well. If they let the affiliation go forward, and KU Hospital suffers as a result, then they have again harmed the people of Kansas.
My suggestion for a way out of this mess is as follows. First, if an affiliation with St. Luke's goes forward, then it should be for a definite term and subject to renegotiation at the end of that term. Second, KU Hospital should be given guarantees by the Legislature, St. Luke's and the university that if it does, in fact, suffer revenue losses because of brand dilution, those losses will be made up. Any business person recognizes that the good will of a business has value. If KU Hospital is forced to give up some of its business good will as a result of the affiliation with St. Luke's, then it should be recompensed for it by those who profit thereby. Third, it is crucial, in my opinion, that all parties involved in this controversy agree that in the future there will be full disclosure, reasonable deadlines and good faith efforts to benefit both the medical center and KU Hospital.
In the end, it is crucial that everyone remember why they have their jobs. Both KU Hospital and KU exist for the benefit of the people of Kansas and for no other reason. The chancellor, the executive vice chancellor of the medical center, the members of the Hospital Authority Board, KU Hospital administrators and the members of the Legislature and executive branch of the state of Kansas all serve the people of Kansas. No one who believes otherwise should remain in office. In the end, the only criterion for decision should be what best serves the public interest. That's what it means to be a public servant.