The conversation about higher education funding in Oklahoma seems to have a different tone than it has in Kansas.
After the regents at the University of Oklahoma approved a 5 percent tuition increase at the school last week, the Associated Press reported comments by OU President David Boren. Like most university leaders, Boren said his school had done its best to avoid tuition increases, but after absorbing about $80 million in fixed-costs increases in the last three years, “it’s just impossible to do something with nothing.”
However, rather than point fingers at state lawmakers for the school’s funding woes, as many in Kansas have done, Boren took a different tack. He thanked Gov. Mary Fallin and Republican leaders in the state legislature for their concern and for having an “open door” to listen to his request for more funding.
Then, he went a step further. “I know that as the economy continues to recover, they’ll do all that they can to help us sort of dig back out of the hole,” Boren said, “and hopefully over the next couple of years get back to not where we would like to be but just get back to where we were in 2008 because we’re a long way from where we were at that time.”
It is, perhaps, useful to note that Boren is well acquainted with the politics of government funding. Before he became OU president, he served as a state legislator, Oklahoma’s governor and a U.S. senator. Apparently, he believes spreading some sugar is the best way to attract more support for additional state funding.
It is also important to note that OU and Oklahoma State University still will have the lowest tuition rates in the Big 12 Conference. Even with the 5 percent increase, Oklahoma students will pay $7,124 per year to attend OU, compared to the $8,364 Kansas freshmen entering KU this fall will pay as part of their tuition “compact.” KU officials often say their school continues to be a bargain compared to its peers, but Oklahoma apparently is an even greater bargain.
Public universities across the country are hurting, but Boren’s strategy for dealing with state lawmakers is interesting. It’s hard to know whether the gratitude he expresses to state legislators and his confidence that they will step up with increased funding in the future are completely sincere or more of a tactic to win political favor.
It seems clear, however, that higher education leaders and state lawmakers working as a team is the best way to improve funding and reduce tuition increases. It’s a relationship that both higher education and legislative leaders in Kansas should try to cultivate.