Much has been said in recent days about the possibility of Kansas University officials, as well as their counterparts at other Kansas Board of Regents universities, figuring out how to make do with less funding from the state.
Last week, school officials were told to work out a plan to reduce spending and have it ready for a presentation to the regents at their retreat, scheduled for Aug. 19-21 in Wichita.
KU Provost Richard Lariviere told KU faculty members and deans that state officials had asked state universities to cut their budgets by up to 7 percent over the next two years.
Whether Lariviere's interpretation of the message or messages he received from various state officials was accurate is up for debate. There's no question, however, that the state's budget is tight and top elected officials are trying to plan for the future and the distinct possibility that all state-aided programs will have to operate with fewer dollars.
The reaction by KU officials, students and faculty was immediate. Such cuts couldn't be made without severe damage to the schools and their students, they said. According to some, there was great unrest among the faculty, even the suggestion that numerous bright, up-and-coming faculty members would start looking for positions at other universities. Students didn't know what the impact of classes or programs being cut or eliminated might have on their study and graduation plans.
Within a day or so, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius got into the middle of the issue, saying KU officials had overreacted. She said, "I hope they will calm down : there is no proposed budget cut of 7 percent. I'm frankly a little bit disappointed that that's how it has been highlighted."
Donna Shank, regents chairwoman, backed up the governor by saying KU officials had gone overboard.
Did Lariviere misfire on how he interpreted messages about trimming the budget? Did he overstate the matter, or is Sebelius trying to backtrack on her level of concern about fewer tax revenue dollars to spread throughout the state?
Regardless, this matter does raise a very important question: Who is speaking for KU and who seems to be absent?
Lariviere and KU spokeswoman Lynn Bretz were the only KU people quoted concerning KU's reaction to possible budget cuts.
The provost does indeed have the responsibility of working with the faculty and the academic programs. He is "Mr. Inside" while Chancellor Robert Hemenway is looked to as "Mr. Outside," dealing with legislators, the public, alumni and public concerns. Bretz has several roles as the public/media relations individual, as well as overseeing the school's lobbyist actions in Topeka.
But in a matter such as this, when it deals with the operation of the university, the fiscal welfare of the school, how the institution will carry out its mission, how parents of students should view possible budget cuts and what jobs may be eliminated, it seems the proper individual to speak for the university is the chancellor. The perception is that he is very close to the governor. In fact, he recently returned from a trip to England with Sebelius.
Why hasn't he spoken up about a situation that has caused such concern? Justified or not, there has been growing concern about the declining visibility of the chancellor with some questioning who is running the school: Lariviere or Hemenway - or maybe even Athletics Director Lew Perkins.
Are Lariviere and Bretz the two individuals who should be speaking and representing the school on a matter such as this?
Potential budget cuts are a serious matter, particularly when the level or percentage of state funding continues to slip year by year. Also, students and their parents are being asked to pay a higher and higher bill to attend classes on Mount Oread.
Higher education takes a big slice out of the state budget and the health of the regents universities is terribly important for the future of the state. The public needs to have the utmost confidence in the level of excellence and leadership of the institutions and be confident that the chancellor or presidents are doing their utmost to fight for the schools.
It is unfortunate, as well as puzzling, that KU's chancellor was not speaking for the university on the budget-cut proposal matter.