The Kansas Board of Regents system is not working and, consequently, Kansas taxpayers are not getting as big a bang for their tax dollars as they should expect — and demand.
Last year, $715,345,007 from the state’s general fund was appropriated for the universities, community colleges and vocational-technical schools under the regents’ umbrella. The nine-member board is the governing body of the six state universities, as well as a statewide coordinating board for one municipal university, 19 community colleges and six vo-tech schools. The total dollar figure for the regents schools, including, tuition, federal and other support funds, was $2,424,424,382. That does not include private fiscal support to the schools.
There is no way on God’s green earth for those serving as regents to know what is happening on the many campuses they are supposed to oversee, govern and coordinate.
At some time in the past, the system may have worked, or at least worked better than it does today, but the state and its taxpayers deserve far better.
The cost of running these schools is huge, and KU takes the biggest single bite out of this taxpayer pie. If the regents’ level of oversight and positive involvement relative to KU’s recent operation is an accurate reflection of their governance of the other 31 schools under their tent, there is much room for improvement.
The biggest problem is that the regents do not know what is happening on the campuses. These are nine unpaid individuals appointed by the governor. Most of them have other jobs and responsibilities. They enjoy the notoriety, they like to be recognized, they like being invited to sit in the chancellor’s or presidents’ boxes at athletic events, and they like the many favors they receive — BUT they really don’t like to hear about troubles. They seldom pursue troubling or bad situations. They really are a “pass through” body in that they hear or are told about problems but then pass the information along to a chancellor or president and expect that person to take the appropriate action.
It’s not working.
Look what happened at KU in recent years — and these are only the situations that have become public. Consider what has been covered up with the hope that somehow bad or embarrassing matters will disappear or magically go away.
Consider the long and well-known mess in the KU athletics department. There certainly were sufficient unhappiness, anger and questions about the ticket situation for years and nothing was done.
The mess in the KU School of Business didn’t become known until a small group of MBA students had the courage to go public about the mismanagement of approximately $32 million in student fee money.
Look at the KU School of Medicine situation in which the chancellor, executive vice chancellor and dean did not comply with a policy calling for periodic performance reviews of the dean. Morale at the school has been bad and continues to be bad; the performance review of the executive vice chancellor and dean was “shockingly bad” — and there are other problems.
Did the regents know anything about theses “messes” at KU? Is there reason to believe there could be other similar messes at Kansas State University, Wichita State, Emporia, Fort Hays and Pittsburg?
The fact is — and this has been acknowledged by those who should know — “chancellors and presidents can and do pull the wool over the eyes of regents.”
Another truth is that regents have known about serious situations and did nothing or expected someone else to do something.
A case in point involved the closing years of KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway’s leadership. Although there was no way the regents could not have been aware of the impact the chancellor’s health issues was having on his handling of the office, they did nothing to help him gracefully step down.
Sometime after the chancellor announced his retirement, a regent told this writer, “We knew about the situation, but what could we do?”
What could they have done? They could have made changes much sooner. The chancellor and university presidents work at the pleasure of the regents. They do not have a contract or tenure to protect their jobs.
How many other situations at KU — or on other campuses — have regents been aware of but elected to do nothing about?
What it all boils down to is that regents do not have the knowledge they should have relative to the schools they are supposed to oversee. And the chancellor and presidents can and do pull the wool over the eyes of the regents.
It’s time for some major changes and improvements.
Some way needs to be figured out to create groups of individuals for each of the regents universities that would serve as the regents’ eyes and ears. They would not have any power to bring about change or enforce policies, but they would have the responsibility of being alert to what is going on at the various schools and meeting with the regents from time to time to keep them up to date on what people interested in the schools are thinking and talking about. Such timely information could keep minor headaches or problems from festering and developing into far more serious matters. Regents could no longer justify not taking action because they were unaware of a situation.
Here’s another long-overdue corrective action. The highly successful KU Hospital, which, over the last 15 to 20 years, has risen from a facility about to be closed or sold to one that is recognized as one of the nation’s top five teaching hospitals. It has a board of directors to make sure the hospital has direction, discipline and vision and a sound, able and demanding leader.
Compare this to the KU School of Medicine. There is no board of directors and the only person who Barbara Atkinson, the KU executive vice chancellor and dean, reports to is KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.
The School of Medicine needs a solid, visionary, tough and demanding board of directors. Its current state of affairs offers the best proof of the need for such a body. It also needs a small group of on-the-ground observers who can work with a hospital board or the regents to keep them up to date about what is happening. Perhaps the same thing would be good for Kansas State’s veterinary school.
Again, Kansas taxpayers, students, faculty members and the state itself all are being shortchanged because of an outdated, over-tasked and under-performing Board of Regents. It’s a board that doesn’t have sufficient knowledge of what is going on at 32 campuses across the state and doesn’t have the courage, or at least hesitates, to investigate and initiate corrective measures. Worse yet, it turns away and expects someone else to correct a bad situation.
Kansans deserve better. The governor and legislators who approve funding for the regents schools deserve better, as do faculty members, students and taxpayers. There is every reason to believe the situations mentioned above at KU and the KU School of Medicine could and should have been handled quicker and much better if the regents had known about the seriousness of these matters, how they handicapped the university and the poor return on taxpayer dollars.
Those serving as regents should demand better performance from the chancellor and presidents — and taxpayers and legislators should demand a better, more courageous, updated and revamped Board of Regents.