Brownback given opportunity to make statement on higher ed

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has been presented a unique opportunity to demonstrate the degree of importance he places on excellence in higher education.

Earlier this week, former Kansas Lt. Gov. and Kansas Regents Chairman Gary Sherrer shocked his fellow regents by announcing he was resigning and immediately walked out of the Regents meeting.

Whether or not this action was totally unexpected and a shock to the other regents is questionable, as relations among the nine-member board — all but two (Ed McKechnie and Tim Emert) appointed by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius — has not been smooth. In response to Sherrer’s sudden resignation, some regents expressed surprise and tried to present a picture of everyone getting along fairly well. McKechnie and Emert were appointed by former Gov. Mark Parkinson.

Sherrer acknowledged he was disappointed he was not selected to be on the search committee to find a new president for Emporia State University. Sherrer is a graduate of the university, and he said how much it would mean to him if he had the opportunity to play a role in the selection. However, his fellow regents said no.

According to sources close to the regents, it has not been a happy family, at least as far as Sherrer viewed the situation.

An observer said “everything seemed a battle, there were some regents who hadn’t had an original idea for four or five years.” He added that some regents have the idea of let the university chancellor and presidents bring their issues to us and we’ll act and vote on the matter rather than the regents taking a pro-active role and knowing more about what is going on at the various schools they have the responsibility of overseeing.

“Too many are too quick to accept what they are told by the university representatives, rather than making the effort to find out for themselves the actual situation. There is far too little verification,” the observer noted.

All of this offers ample evidence the Kansas Board of Regents is not measuring up to its tremendously important responsibility.

A truly excellent system of higher education is critical if Kansas and its citizens are to be competitive with the rest of the country. Settling for mediocrity, or what is easy, is not going to get the job done, and one of the essential parts in achieving this goal is to have a superior, highly respected and committed Board of Regents.

This is not accomplished by filling the nine regents chairs with friends, I-owe-yous and political payoffs. Such actions shortchange the state and its citizens as well as students, their parents and faculty.

Unfortunately, this has been the pattern too long.

Brownback now has the opportunity to select three new regents, the vacancy created by Sherrer’s resignation and the option of reappointing or dismissing Jarold Boettcher and Richard Hedges, both of whom are finishing their first term as regents.

Politics has played too much of a role in the selection process and how the regents handle matters that come before the board. With Sherrer’s resignation, Vice Chairman Ed McKechnie is likely to move into the chairmanship. For whatever reason, right or wrong, the former Kansas state representative earned the nickname of “Slick Eddie” among his fellow lawmakers. The observer mentioned above said McKechnie “is very political” in his actions and decisions.

Is this what the state wants in the leader of the regents?

Again, Gov. Brownback has the opportunity to make a powerful statement relative to how he looks upon the importance of higher education in Kansas. Will he nominate individuals to the board who are smart, talented, successful in their respective fields; respected by their peers for their honesty and deep interest in higher education; knowledgeable about fiscal affairs; and individuals who merit respect and attention of state lawmakers? Also, do the regents have the courage to do what is necessary when such action may not be the most popular or comfortable course of action?

Brownback’s appointments will send a clear message, and hopefully the regents will hear this message loud and clear.


A bit more about former Kansas Bioscience Authority president and CEO Tom Thornton, who recently resigned his position and accepted a job at the Cleveland Clinic.

According to a Kansas Watchdog report, Thornton had a sweet financial package. Thornton’s total pay, bonus and benefit package potentially was worth more than $463,000 for fiscal year 2010, four times what Gov. Brownback makes and $63,000 more than President Obama’s salary.

Thornton’s compensation included a $265,000 base; an annual performance bonus (42 percent of base), $111,300; an additional incentive opportunity (up to 18 percent of base), $47,700; a retirement plan (8 percent of base), $21,100; heath insurance (estimated at $750 a month), $9,000; car allowance ($625 a month), $7,500; and life and long-term disability insurance, $1,500.

Securing funding for the NBAF facility in Manhattan would be a part of Thornton’s bonus package based on various levels of construction funding for NBAF, as would getting Kansas listed as a “bioscience powerhouse” in Business Facilities Magazine rankings.

It’s questionable if this kind of pay and bonuses was what members of the Kansas Legislature had in mind when they set up the unique, visionary Kansas Bioscience Authority.

Thornton, with the support and cooperation of the KBA board, put together a very attractive package for himself. It will be interesting to learn what the new KBA president and CEO will be paid.