An 8 percent reduction in the state’s higher education budget is only a recommendation, but the Kansas Board of Regents and state university leaders shouldn’t take a wait-and-see approach to cuts that could have a significant, if not devastating, impact on their institutions.
In September the Board of Regents sent Gov. Sam Brownback a budget that included an increase of about 6.2 percent, including a 1 percent pay increase for the state’s 18,000 university employees. Earlier this week, Brownback’s budget office took the opposite approach and recommended an 8 percent reduction in funding for higher education.
A spokeswoman for the Board of Regents indicated that the board had appealed the recommendation made by the Division of Budget, but a Kansas University spokesman said KU officials didn’t plan to comment or talk about “effects” of such budget cuts until January, when the governor reveals his budget to the Legislature.
There’s no reason for officials at KU or other state universities to overreact to the budget office’s recommendation, but simply sitting back and waiting to see what the governor proposes also may not be a winning strategy. Unfortunately, this has been the practice of KU officials in recent years. After the governor releases his budget, it will be far more difficult to influence its contents.
So far, Brownback has been more interested in targeting expenditures for specific higher education goals, such as increasing the number of engineering graduates in the state, than in approving overall budget increases for state universities. For that reason, it makes sense for KU officials to press for specific funding priorities, as they did the day before the budget office recommendation was released when they met with Brownback to discuss the possibility of a $30 million commitment for a new medical education building at the KU Medical Center.
However, the regents and university officials also must be proactive in pushing for the overall funding that keeps their institutions viable. For instance, a 1 percent pay increase won’t go very far in helping universities retain valued faculty members, but it’s better than having to reduce staff or salaries because of an 8 percent budget cut.
All indications are that 2013 will be a brutal year for the Kansas budgeting process. The same is true for most states; Kansas is not alone. It’s a year in which a passive approach probably won’t produce positive results. In Kansas, the Board of Regents and other higher education officials in the state need to get to work and sell their important product both to the governor and state legislators.