Change seems to be the new watchword at Kansas University. We are losing both our chancellor and provost, and the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has been appointed interim provost. Within the next 12 to 18 months, we shall, hopefully, see the appointments of a new chancellor and provost and we may hope they have a long and successful tenure at KU.
As the senior administration changes, the university is also forced to deal with an unprecedented, at least in recent decades, fiscal crisis brought about by the state’s and nation’s economic meltdown. The next few years will be, as the Chinese proverb says, “interesting times.”
Interim Provost Steinmetz and the to-be-appointed chancellor and provost will have great challenges to confront. But times of crisis can also present opportunities, opportunities to rethink, restructure, and reinvent. Certainly, rather than focus solely on the dark side of the present situation, we may hope that our new interim provost and our new permanent senior administrators will look not only to trim the university’s budget but will also use the next few years to reinvent KU.
During Chancellor Robert Hemenway’s tenure, the university has made many advances in research, globalization, upgrading of facilities, and athletics. We have also intensified our efforts to convince the Kansas Board of Regents and the Legislature that KU has become an enormous engine of economic productivity.
University research at KU and Kansas State University in the sciences, engineering, medicine and veterinary medicine, and social sciences have brought increased wealth to the state, attracting businesses from out-of-state as well as creating new, spin-off enterprises. The I-70 corridor from Manhattan to Kansas City, anchored at one end by K-State and the new National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility and at the other end by KU, the KU Medical Center, and the Stowers Institute, has become the new Route 128.
But KU and all public universities are more than economic engines. They are also institutions that transform lives through teaching. The dream of public education, since Congress passed the Morrill Act in 1862 giving land to the states to create public universities, has been one of transformation and opportunity. KU, I believe, needs to spend as much time on this aspect of itself as it does on creating economic value through research or athletics.
Unfortunately, it seems quite clear that our society has become more polarized between the wealthy and the ordinary folks. Many private universities are far beyond the reach of ordinary working people because of cost. Efforts to make private universities more affordable have, in many cases, been destroyed by the economy and the decline in university endowments.
The problem is very real right now. Most Americans cannot afford a four-year college education at a private school. Indeed, increasing numbers of Americans cannot afford four years of public education. If, as a result of budget cuts, tuition and fees are forced to rise and scholarship support to decrease, the dream of providing a college education to every American will disappear.
If cuts to university budgets lead to faculty departures, this means the quality of education public university students have available will decline. By damaging public universities, we damage the American dream. We limit economic opportunities for individuals. We restrict social mobility and we reinforce a class system based on wealth.
I hope that our new leaders at KU — and at K-State — make sure to explain to the Regents and the Legislature that when the university suffers cutbacks, this, of necessity, cuts against the hopes and dreams of every Kansan who wants to improve their lives through education.
In the 19th century, Kansas was one of the centers for the populist movement in politics. To me, one of the most attractive aspects of populism is the notion that every person should have the opportunity to improve his or her life through education and training. Opportunity should not belong only to the rich. It should belong to everyone.
KU, K-State, Wichita State, and all of the Regents universities are the principal agents of educational opportunity in Kansas. We must not let them lose the ability to transform ordinary Kansans’ lives for the better.
— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.