Given recent declines in state financial support for state universities, it makes a certain amount of sense to give university leaders and the Kansas Board of Regents more autonomy in dealing with policy and financial issues facing those schools.
Deciding such things as special tuition plans and admissions requirements, however, is a big responsibility, and the Board of Regents must prove itself equal to the task.
In a recent House committee hearing, Regent Gary Sherrer spoke in favor of a measure that would give the regents more authority to set admissions standards at state universities. If the measure is passed, it likely would result in some universities, including Kansas University, changing admission requirements for Kansas high school graduates, a move that could be controversial.
Sherrer said the measure was justified because the regents are more involved than legislators with the day-to-day oversight of state universities and, therefore, are better qualified to make decisions about the standards.
Some Kansans might not agree with that premise. It certainly is our hope that individual regents commit considerable time to keeping informed about all aspects of higher education in the state, including state universities. It also is our hope that regents make independent judgments about higher education issues and don’t simply accept the recommendations of their own CEO or university leaders. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. The hesitance of the regents to buck university recommendations for repeated tuition increases comes to mind.
It’s also true that, although members of the regents may have special qualifications in the field of higher education, they are lacking one important qualification that all state legislators, as well as the governor and even the Kansas State Board of Education have: They are not elected by the people of Kansas. They are not responsible to the people of Kansas in the same way as elected officials. They are part of a partisan political appointment process.
There certainly seems to be room for the regents to take on more responsibility. An apt example presented by Sherrer is the need to eliminate a computer class from the regents’ required curriculum for qualified admissions. Computer skills have been fully integrated into the classroom and there is no need to have a separate class. As Sherrer noted, changing that curriculum shouldn’t require a change in state law.
Giving universities and the regents more authority to set policy is largely a matter of building trust among state legislators. This “trust” would be enhanced if governors would place more importance on choosing appointees whose excellence, common sense and qualifications merit the respect of the public and state legislators. Although the percentage of university budgets funded by the state has steadily declined in recent years, legislators still hold the purse strings and, therefore, the ability to rein in the regents if legislators think they are getting out of line.
It seems appropriate for legislators to give up some of their micromanagement of higher education, but the regents must understand, as they pick up more power, that they also must be worthy of the state’s trust.