Archive for Saturday, September 27, 2008

Simons: Removing university leaders hurts state bioscience group

September 27, 2008


The Kansas Bioscience Authority came into existence on April 19, 2004. The primary architects of the legislation that created this unique entity were Sen. Nick Jordan of Johnson County and Rep. Kenny Wilk of Leavenworth.

This legislation and the vision it displayed were approved with enthusiasm and high expectations by both the Kansas Senate and House.

The program called for 11 directors, nine voting and two nonvoting. It was to be an independent agency as free as possible of partisan political games. Those appointed to the board were supposed to have specific skills, interests or knowledge, with all members working for the benefit of the entire state.

The mission of the KBA is to "make Kansas the most desirable state in which to conduct, facilitate, support, fund and perform bioscience research, development and commercialization, to make Kansas a national leader in bioscience, to create new jobs, foster economic growth, advance scientific knowledge and improve the quality of life for citizens of the state of Kansas."

In particular, the authority and its directors were to facilitate and support bioscience projects for the benefit of the citizens to promote the state's research, development and commercialization objectives.

The authority started off with unity among board members and little political posturing. The program was designed so directors would have the ability to authorize spending or earmarks up to $580 million for worthy projects over the initial life of the authority.

Many successful ventures were endorsed and supported by the authority in its first year or two. It had so much success - more than some in Topeka had anticipated - that the governor and others apparently decided it would be smart to grab hold of the authority and use it to help further their own political dreams and public images.

Soon, the authority lost much of its independence. The governor, urged by some powerful behind-the-scenes players, engineered the replacement of the highly effective KBA chairman. Several original directors resigned or were not reappointed and were replaced by individuals much more aligned with the governor's goals and plans for the authority.

The complexion and thinking of the board gradually changed, and, at its Sept. 17-18 meeting, the Kansas Board of Regents, which has two appointments to the KBA board, took the boldest action yet. The regents, a majority of whom were appointed by Gov. Sebelius, took Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway and Kansas State University President Jon Wefald off the KBA board.

Hemenway and Wefald lead universities that account for approximately 90 percent of the research done at the six state universities, something that is supposed to be rather important in the KBA mission.

Nevertheless, they were fired, and the manner in which it was done doesn't reflect well on Regents Chairwoman Donna Shank and those who may have directed her to make the changes.

In fact, it is understood neither Hemenway nor Wefald were told of their impending firing. Reggie Robinson, the employed president and CEO of the board of regents, is believed to have told one of the university leaders there was some consideration about replacing Hemenway or Wefald but that was it. Shank did not visit with either man prior to announcing, in a very low-key manner, the change as part of her appointments for 2008-09. According to one source, she still hasn't talked with Hemenway or Wefald about her action.

From the outset, the regents have been expected to appoint individuals from the state's universities to fill the two nonvoting positions on the KBA board, individuals representing the principal academic research institutions.

Rather than follow this guideline, Shank appointed Robinson and Regent William Thornton, an Atchison attorney, to the two research-related positions.

Talk about political games and self-serving actions.

Apparently, there is nothing that says the regents can't or shouldn't do it, but here are the regents putting two of their own - a staff member and a fellow regent - on the KBA board.

One of the excuses offered by Shank is that representatives of other regents universities have been complaining they were being bypassed by KBA funding that had been going to KU and KSU. They didn't think they were being treated fairly, although aside from Wichita State University, the vast majority of research activities occur at KU and KSU.

According to Shank, the regents believed they should have broader representation on the KBA board. She said Hemenway and Wefald were doing a good job and claimed that they didn't mind being taken off the board.

This is not true!

Maybe Hemenway and Wefald did indeed do a good job on the board, but apparently Shank and others, on and off the board, either thought the two university executives were over the hill, didn't add much to the stature of the board or were not pulling their weight.

Never mind that they headed up the two major state universities where most of the research is being done. Better to replace them with two of their own, Robinson and Thornton, both lawyers, and thereby have better control over where KBA money is appropriated.

Money is the name of the game these days, whether it's on the board of regents, in politics or in athletics.

KBA is in control of many millions of dollars and, consequently, there are many who would like to be able to control who gets these dollars. Some even go so far as to suggest that with tight state budgets, Gov. Sebelius might try to divert KBA funds to help meet state budget needs.

What started off as a grand and successful venture - the creation of an independent, nonpartisan machine to bring new bioscience-related business to the state to create jobs and help existing Kansas companies grow and expand - has been transformed into a highly partisan body with politics playing too great a role. One KBA member has been characterized as "the governor's attack dog," and there certainly is justification to question the reasoning and actions of those serving as regents.

The dumping of Hemenway and Wefald, the manner in which it was done and their replacement (by two lawyers - one a regent and one a paid regents' employee) certainly diminishes the stature of the KBA and the regents.

Were these actions worth the cost in terms of lost integrity and excellence?

Where is the true leadership, honesty, vision and courage to do the right thing?


humblecommentator 9 years, 2 months ago

this column is right on. the politicalization of this board is very sad indeed

not_dolph 9 years, 2 months ago

Watch as Sebelius uses her new appointees to bleed off millions of dollars from the KBA to fill budget holes across state government. Why can't you leave well enough alone, something that is working well. One more reason that her departure can come none too soon.

KU_cynic 9 years, 2 months ago

I had two opposing reactions to this news and this opinion piece.On one hand, Hemenway and Welfald -- while high placed -- are largely figurehead board members. Wefald is retiring from KSU, in fact, and if his successor were to have a science background then it would be natural to place him or her on the board. Hemenway, on the other hand, is a former English professor who -- as Simons has pointed out repeatedly -- has been clumsily snoozing away through his duties at KU for the last few years. I might have thought that Simons would have either applauded Hemenway being "fired" from the KBA directors or, alternatively, cited it as yet another example of Hemenway's incompetence or misplaced priorities.In short, I see little compelling reason to keep Hemenway and Wefald on as KBA directors. Surely there are better people out there with appropriate talents. On the other hand, I would not place Reggie Robinson and Regent Thornton on that short list. Robinson, in particular, appears a poor choice. He is a talented attorney well-suited to the "consigliere" roles he has played in KU administration and at the Board of Regents. But read his resume tell me where science, science management, economic development, or entrepreneurship appear as areas of expertise and experience. Nowhere. In addition, I do not understand what Robinson brings to the table when one of the Regents he works for -- Thornton -- is appointed at the same time. While it might make sense for someone at the Regents or KSU/KU administration to serve on the board, it makes no sense for Robinson to serve as well since he comes with a redundant set of connections and background. The sad fact is that hundreds of millions of state funds are being directed by politically connected amateurs with little understanding of bioscience, science management, venture capital, and economic development. The return observed to date has not been impressive. These recent changes in the KBA lead me to think that it will get worse.

collector 9 years, 2 months ago

Did you and your pal Clay Blair accomplish anything while you were on the Bio Science Authority?

Darrell Lea 9 years, 2 months ago

Gee, only two rhetorical questions, and those were at the very end of the article. Kind of disappointing for a Saturday Column if you ask me,

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