Read the speech
Wichita Gov. Mark Parkinson on Tuesday called for major improvements in the state’s higher education system, including boosting the national academic ranking of Kansas University.
“We would not be satisfied if we didn’t have a single sports team in the top 90, so why are we satisfied that we don’t have a single university in the top 90? I’m not satisfied,” Parkinson said to the Kansas Board of Regents.
According to U.S. News and World Report, of the 260 national universities, Kansas University was the highest ranking school in the state at 96. Kansas State University was ranked in the third tier, which means it was between 134 and 196; and Wichita State University was in the fourth tier, which means it was ranked between 197 and 260.
“It’s far more important to me that we have a university academically in the top 20 than we have a basketball or football team in the top 20,” he said at the regents’ annual working retreat meeting.
After delivering a 40-minute speech to the regents, Parkinson said both KU and Kansas State University needed to have tougher admission standards and be more selective in accepting students.
And, he said, he would support a tax increase, if needed, to increase faculty salaries and other resources to improve the academic rankings of state universities.
“This board agrees with you,” Regents Chairwoman Jill Docking said. “We will rise to this challenge,” she said.
Parkinson proposed a 10-year timetable to accomplish the following:
• Raise KU to the top 50.
• Raise K-State to the top 100.
• Have no Kansas institution in the fourth tier.
• Improve rankings for specialty programs, including making the KU law and medical schools in the top 50; getting the K-State veterinarian school in the top 10; getting all engineering schools in the top 100; and analyzing the possibility of a dental school at Wichita State University.
Another major portion of Parkinson’s speech was to improve retention and graduation rates of students.
“Unfortunately, our performance in Kansas is even worse than the national average,” he said.
He said increasing admission standards would help retention and graduation rates by ensuring that students who are ready for college-level classes are enrolling. He said the regents needed to emphasize the importance of community colleges and technical schools to train students to fill job shortages.
Parkinson said he felt that if the regents gave the Legislature a strategic plan to make these improvements, lawmakers would listen to ways to increase funding. If they didn’t, he said, then they are making the decision that the status quo is OK.
Regent Donna Shank said Parkinson “was right on target.”
She said one of the main reasons that the regents hired new KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was to improve KU’s national academic standing because she is coming from the University of North Carolina, which has a high ranking.
“We think KU ought to be achieving at a much higher level,” Shank said.
During his speech, Parkinson said he recognized that many believe national academic rankings are somewhat subjective and problematic. But, he said, they are important. High rankings will prevent the “brain drain” of high-performing students leaving the state.
And, he said, the U.S. News and World Report rankings are based on factors that are important, such a peer assessment, graduation and retention rates, faculty resources and student selectivity.
Both Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and Interim Provost Danny Anderson were unavailable for comment, said Lynn Bretz, a university spokeswoman.
“We are encouraged that during this period of budget reductions, Gov. Parkinson is focusing attention on the national aspirations of Kansas higher education. We also appreciate his reference to Chancellor Gray-Little’s goal of improving graduation and retention rates,” Bretz said in a written statement.
“The governor is correct in pointing out that improving reputational factors will require an investment of resources, planning and time. However, in his focus on the national magazine U.S. News’ ranking of undergraduate education, we hope that people do not lose sight of the fact that U.S. News ranks 20 KU graduate programs in the top 25 among all public and private universities.”