Kansas Board of Regents needs new structure

Unfortunately, the Kansas Board of Regents system fails to measure up to today’s challenges. Changes are needed.

The Board of Regents oversees six public universities: Kansas University, Kansas State, Wichita State, Emporia State, Fort Hays State and Pittsburg State, including the KU School of Medicine and the KSU School of Veterinary Medicine, plus partial oversight of Washburn University.

In addition, the regents are charged with providing oversight and coordination for the state’s 19 community colleges: Allen County, Barton County, Butler Community, Cloud County, Coffeyville Community, Colby Community, Cowley, Dodge City Community, Fort Scott Community, Garden City Community, Highland Community, Hutchinson Community, Independence Community, Johnson County Community, Kansas City Kansas Community, Labette Community, Neosho County Community, Pratt Community and Seward County Community.

The regents also have a role in the state’s technical colleges: Flint Hills, Manhattan Area, North Central Kansas, Northwest Kansas, Salina Area and Wichita Area.

The governor appoints nine individuals to serve as regents. They volunteer; it is a part-time job, but they receive no pay. The 32 schools are scattered throughout the state and vary in size from about 30,000 students to about 700 students at some of the technical schools.

A 2011 study reports that 2010 enrollment at the 32 schools totaled 180,188 with 48,962 graduates in 2009. Regents funding for fiscal year 2011 was $2.424 billion. Broken down, $751.345 million came from the state general fund, $539.7 million from tuition and $1.144 billion from other funds.

The 2010 estimated population of Kansas was 2,738,830. Counties with regents universities had a total population of 931,177, while counties with community colleges or technical schools had a total population of 1,194,971. That leaves 675,934 Kansans living in counties without a Board of Regents institution.

The state’s higher education system is a huge business with a huge economic impact on the state. It cannot be overstated!

Aside from the economic facts, between 180,000 and 200,000 students are attending these schools, and the quality of education they receive should be of equally huge interest and concern.

Try as they may (and at times this is questionable), there is no way the regents can know what is going on at all of these schools.

It is nice to be a regent. It is one of the state’s most prestigious positions. Regents are invited to sit in the KU chancellor’s suite at football games and at center court for basketball games. It is an ego-building position.

Granted, board members are assisted by a fine staff in Topeka, but no matter how they may argue the point, the inept manner in which the regents handled four specific situations at KU offers excellent proof they were unaware of the situations, left them to the chancellor to handle or didn’t have the backbone to act. The four situations were: the departure of Chancellor Robert Hemenway, the athletics department ticket mess, the business school mess and the medical school mess. There may have been more that were covered up. What about other “messes” at the other 31 institutions under the regents umbrella?

The Kansas regents system needs to be brought up to date. Times are changing, and academia needs to change with the times. Many in education are uncomfortable with change, but, if Kansas is to keep pace with its peer institutions or, better yet, be a leader, changes are needed.

Consider the following possible changes:

• Bring someone onto the board who actually knows what goes on at a campus, someone who has first-hand experience. The state might reduce the number of regents from nine to seven and have one of the seven be an individual who has a firm grasp of the workings of a comprehensive university.

Del Brinkman, for example, would be an ideal type candidate. He is a former KU professor, dean and vice chancellor for academic affairs. He is recognized nationally for his skills and expertise. He knows athletics because he was KU’s faculty representative to the athletic conference.

Brinkman has a proven record and would merit the respect of those at all regents institutions. There are others who could fill such a position on the Board of Regents, but someone with these talents and background would be a valuable member.

Reducing the number of regents from nine to seven would bring more focus to the board. The larger the board, whether the regents or a search committee, the less the focus.

• The regents need to know what is going on at the various campuses. Recent events demonstrate they do not know. It would be good if individual bodies could be formed to serve as the eyes and ears of each institution. Those on such committees would have no power other than to keep regents informed about what is happening at the six regents universities, the KU School of Medicine and KSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

• How about giving serious consideration to a separate board of regents for KU or possibly a board for just KU and KSU and maybe Wichita? Each school in the regents system fills a specific need and has specific missions. Would a separate board for KU, or possibly the other two schools, allow more focus on the needs, roles and mission of these schools?

• What about term limits for the chancellor and presidents? Being a chancellor or president is a tough, demanding and tiring job. Better to leave early than stay too late is sound advice. What about an eight- or nine-year term with the provision that extensions can be granted to those doing a superior job?

For example, Fort Hays State President Ed Hammond has served in that post for 25 years and is doing a superior job. He has more new ideas, enthusiasm and energy than others who have served far fewer years.

• Regents should be proactive rather than reactive.

• Regents should play a much more powerful and demanding role in challenging the chancellor and presidents to figure out ways to hold down tuition costs. The cost of going to college and the debt facing students upon graduation now is becoming a hot political topic. It should have been a concern long ago.

Too often, the response from university officials or regents about ever-escalating tuition rates is something like, “We are trying hard to hold down costs, but we want parents, students and others interested in our school to know our tuition costs are comparable to those of our peer institutions.”

That’s supposed to appease the critics. Why not have KU’s goal be to provide a superior educational opportunity at a low, low price. Cut out many of the extras and put that money into superior faculty who, in turn, will attract superior students all at a lower cost.

Unfortunately, the game of attracting students to come to a university for an education is becoming similar to the game of attracting superior athletes. It’s called, keeping up with the Joneses.

Is it possible to have a university that sells itself for its academic excellence, a terrific faculty and provide this opportunity at a lower price?

Higher education is too big, too important, too costly, impacts too many lives and is too important for the state not to have a system of governance that gets the maximum bang out of every tax dollar.

Those serving as regents face a massive challenge, as well as a massive opportunity, to make Kansas’ system of higher education a leader and a model for the rest of the country.

But today’s Board of Regents must be reconfigured to deal with the changing times and the complexities of a major research university, as well as community colleges and technical schools.

The current board structure cannot get the job done.