Kansas Gov.-elect Sam Brownback and members of his transition team are dealing with thousands of details and demands to prepare the state’s new leadership team to get off to a good start in early January.
The challenges are immense, and the opportunities are great. How the governor kicks off his four-year term, how Kansans view his priorities and how he intends to tackle many of the state’s problems will go a long way in setting the tone and the level of enthusiasm or support the governor will generate for his time in office.
Will he be viewed as a strong, visionary leader, a person who can help guide Kansas and its citizens to a better future? Or will he be seen as a run-of-the-mill politician with a lot of promises and pledges but little chance of bringing these grand-sounding ideas to reality?
Those on his transition team have the responsibility of filling many important positions, putting together a state budget proposal to outline how they intend to grow the state’s economy and drafting the governor’s State of the State address.
The majority of Kansans were pleased with the manner in which retiring Gov. Mark Parkinson stepped into the governor’s office and the leadership he displayed.
However, that was for less than two years. Now, they want Brownback to lead the state in a fiscally sound manner. They want leadership and vision from the governor and they want to feel optimistic about the future. They want a minimum of political partisanship, and they would like to have the state of Kansas looked upon as innovative, visionary and courageous in dealing with a wide assortment of challenges.
One of the most pressing challenges, as well as opportunities, is how to deal with the massive problems associated with higher education: how to meet the rising costs and how to make sure Kansas universities are being run as efficiently as possible; how to attract and hold talented faculty members; how to avoid pricing students out of a chance to attend a superior academic institution; how to increase state fiscal support; and many other related matters.
Times change, and what once was accepted as the best way to oversee and manage universities also has changed, or at least should be changed to meet current and future needs.
Brownback and his advisers could consider whether the manner in which Kansas universities are operated and managed is effective and productive and provides enough accountability in today’s climate.
A university today is big business, a huge business. Would a successful business, in a highly competitive environment, operate as loosely as our state’s universities are operating? Budgets are in the many millions of dollars. They have thousands of employees, a large physical plant, tens of thousands of students and a major responsibility to those who are paying the bills: taxpayers, parents and students.
What accountability is there that the schools are measuring up?
Is it reasonable to think a chancellor can be on top of all these situations or that members of the Kansas Board of Regents know the seriousness of the challenges and how to address these problems or opportunities? The Kansas regents are part-time, not full-time, gatekeepers.
In past years, with fewer students, fewer academic programs, smaller budgets, less competition and far less emphasis on the “world” or international scene, it might have been easier for a chancellor or those serving as regents to think they had the ability and knowledge to take care of everything happening on their campuses.
Whether this rationale was justified 25 or 50 years ago is questionable, but it certainly isn’t the case today.
Hopefully, Brownback and his close advisers such as his incoming chief of staff David Kensinger and former state legislators Kenny Wilk will give serious thought to how to make the state’s higher education system more accountable.
Might they consider a university such as KU having a board of overseers, a small group of highly skilled, knowledgeable individuals who could help guide the university? This group could be composed of vigilant, supportive, successful people who understand challenges and could provide the regents an acute, accurate, unbiased assessment of the university’s needs and how it and its administrators are functioning. Is the chancellor effective in communicating the school’s needs, and is he or she imaginative and innovative in addressing opportunities? Does the state have strong leaders in administrative positions?
Some knowledgeable observers suggest the current regents system is obsolete, a figurehead operation, and that regents do not have the time to properly carry out their responsibilities and no longer enjoy the respect of state legislators and taxpayers.
Recent events on Mount Oread offer ample proof that it is difficult for regents to know as much as they should about what is going on at the campus. They have relied too heavily on the self-serving analyses of chancellors and provosts.
A group of overseers — or whatever such a group might be called — would give regents and state legislators the assurance that someone on the ground is providing sound, timely, accountable information.
It would be good for the state, taxpayers, students, the faculty and even chancellors and presidents if Brownback and his associates would give serious consideration to major changes in higher education oversight.
Why not be a leader, with other states and governors looking to Kansas as an example of how a state can successfully address the terrific challenges facing higher education?