It’s exciting to see a Kansas governor stepping up and setting some bold goals to upgrade higher education in the state.
The ideas being put forth by Gov. Mark Parkinson are certain to stir some debate, as well as some opposition, but he is doing the state a great service by starting the conversation about how Kansas’ state universities can enhance their nationwide status. Kansas universities have a number of highly ranked programs but fall short when it comes to overall rankings.
The changes Parkinson is putting forth require Kansans to change the way they look at state universities. Although educating Kansas students should be a high priority for the state’s higher education system, it is not the only goal.
Another shift is the idea that not all state universities need to play the same role in the higher education system. It’s highly unlikely Kansas can have five or six nationally recognized universities, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to place one or two institutions on that list. The state should maintain high standards for all of its universities, but it’s OK for some universities to set even higher standards and focus more on elevating their academic standing.
Parkinson’s speech to the Kansas Board of Regents this week included some important, if uncomfortable, truths. In two different statements he raised the issue of athletic vs. academic rankings at Kansas universities. “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?” he asked. “I’m not satisfied.”
In a second athletic reference he noted, “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.”
Obviously Kansas would like to have universities that are highly ranked both in academics and athletics, but Parkinson has his priorities straight; academics should come first.
Parkinson challenged the regents to take the lead on this issue in a way that their recent predecessors have not. That means giving legislators a strategic plan to achieve tangible goals and holding universities accountable for meeting those goals. That’s the kind of plan, he said, that could entice legislators to provide the increased funding that would be needed to take state universities to the next level.
Shaking loose any additional state funding in the current economic climate is a tall order, but it certainly won’t happen if state universities and the Board of Regents don’t look beyond the status quo. The kind of goals articulated by Parkinson will require the state to change its thinking about admissions standards and to accept that the state needs to elevate Kansas University and Kansas State not at the expense of other state universities, but to strengthen its entire higher education system.
It’s been a long time since a Kansas governor has taken such a direct interest in higher education. Even though Parkinson only has a relatively short time left in office, his support is a great opportunity for state universities to set goals that will make Kansas a national player not only in athletics but also academics.