Archive for Saturday, January 21, 2012

Taxpayers deserve better performance from higher ed system

January 21, 2012


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.


Richard Heckler 6 years, 5 months ago

How about some hard evidence to support the allegations? There are too many facts missing it seems.

If the current board of reagents has been appointed by Sam Brownback well of course there is reason for substantial concern.

KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little walked into a large mess. Cleaning up the overall mess will take time. Much more time than impatience is willing to allow.

Lots of repubs are beating up on Obama for not having the Bush/Cheney sinking of the economy cleaned up quickly. How can matters of these magnitudes be cleaned up quickly?

Get real.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 5 months ago

The current board of "reagents?" Merrill, are you a bottle-washer in the KU Chemistry Department?

Paul R Getto 6 years, 5 months ago

Yet another "Appoint me as a Regent and I'll tell you how to fix this mess" column by the editor.

Bob Forer 6 years, 5 months ago

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.

I understand that Hemenway currently is very ill. What Dolph states suggests dementia. A terrible disease, and a tragic state of affairs if Hemenway was, in fact, debilitated during the final years of his tenure.

Question: How does one help an individual afflicted with dementia gracefully step down. A tall task, given the nature of the disease.

Kendall Simmons 6 years, 5 months ago

From reading his own words, Dolph apparently wanted Hemenway fired...but fired nicely.

I also love how Dolph complains that the Regents knew but did nothing...then, in the next paragraph, complains about how they never know anything. But, hey, why should Dolph have to worry about little inconsistencies. He's Dolph. It's only his opinion that matters.

jim67208 6 years, 5 months ago

As a recent graduate of the KU School of Medicine, and a student member of the faculty council, I believe your comments about EVC Barbara Atkinson, MD are mean spirited and unjustified. She has been one of the hardest-working agents for change I've ever seen, in my decades of business experience. Perhaps if you used facts to justify your criticism, it would be more helpful. Dr. Atkinson has led the effort to establish a major upgrade to a National Cancer Center designation, and was one of the key players who brought in Bob Page as a major agent for change in the hospital system. These are two of the finest people I've had the privilege to associate with. Sure, the Board of Regents could do a better job. But then, so could the author of this flimsy opinion piece.

James Stanford, MD Wichita, Kansas

Kendall Simmons 6 years, 5 months ago

But...but...according to Dolph, you're supposed to tell us how low everyone's morale is :-)

One question I've had...if everyone's morale is so low, how come we haven't seen a mass exodus from the KU School of Medicine?

realisticvoter 6 years, 5 months ago

Dolph doesn't need to do a good job, he owns the JW. Anything he says is the exact opposite of what should be done. He just won't accept the fact he a hack publisher and nobody listens to his "brilliant" words of GOP/Teabagger wisdom.

beaujackson 6 years, 5 months ago

Dolph is probably right - "Where there's smoke, there's fire".

took_the_money_and_ran 6 years, 5 months ago

So the management of a private business (perhaps a newspaper) decides they need to go in a different direction. They eliminate a number of jobs, and redistribute tasks among the remaining staff. Probably the laid off people think they should have kept their jobs, and somebody who was retained should have been laid off instead. The people who still have jobs may think that the new division of responsibilities isn't fair to them. But those are decisions the management can make.

A dean at A. University wishes some departments would go in a different direction. When a department chair retires, the dean chooses to bring in a person from outside as the new chair, to shake things up. But none of the existing tenured faculty can be dismissed. They liked things just the way they were, and push back against the new chair. Eventually, the dean folds over their constant complaints and ousts the new chair. But the chair is tenured too, and can stay indefinitely. The dean hires another chair externally, as well as an associate dean whose job it is to push people to increase their research funding. The same tenured professors who didn't like the chair now don't like the associate dean, and push back on everything he tries to change.

Should the regents of A. University look into and take sides on this? If so, should they listen to the dean's plans for the future, or to the grumpy old men who are the senior faculty? Or would that be not particularly helpful micromanagement in a system where tenure guarantees a situation with chronic friction because people don't agree on what the priorities should be, but nobody can lose their job for ignoring or undermining the goals of management?

Should one side or the other in this situation bring it to the attention of the local newspaper? It's the end of the world as we know it, for about five people, and for everybody else it's just business as usual in academia.

beaujackson 6 years, 5 months ago

It may be time to eliminate "tenure".

Tenure may be good for the "tenured", but not taxpayers.

Death, taxes, & tenure. The first two are inevitable, but why the third?

kochmoney 6 years, 5 months ago

Yes. Let's get rid of tenure. While we're at it, we'll skip the intermediate steps where he threatens the administration with budget cuts if they don't start giving the faculty political litmus tests and just have the governor fire everyone who believes in evolution, knows anything about birth control, or studies an economic philosophy he disagrees with.

Cai 6 years, 5 months ago

tenure isn't inevitable. i know several professors who were denied tenure (and should have been)

voevoda 6 years, 5 months ago

Tenure protects faculty against illegitimate pressure by power-hungry administrators and interventionist politicians. And that's very good for taxpayers. There have been all too many cases when deans or legislators have wanted to fire professors who were excellent teachers and productive, recognized researchers, but who were insufficiently deferential.

yourworstnightmare 6 years, 5 months ago

Mr. Simons,

As a good capitalist, you must understand the idea that "you get what you pay for".

Kansas is at the bottom tier of states in terms of how much they spend on higher eduction, even among regional peers:

Kansas spends about $14 million, Iowa about $18 million, Oklahoma $21 million. Nebraska spends less ($9 million).

Of our national peers: North Carolina $31 million, Oregon $27 million, Kentucky $25 million, West Virginia $20 million.

You get what you pay for, Mr. Simons.

KU_cynic 6 years, 5 months ago

Not sure what your point is, ...nightmare.

First, those figures you cite are billions, not millions.

Second, these figures have no meaning unless they're presented on a per capita basis. Of the 8 states you listed, however, Kansas rates 7th at about $5051 per capita -- which is about $2160 less per capita than Iowa, a state whose reputation for education far exceeds Kansas. North Carolina is actually last in terms of per capita expenditures at about $3300.

But if one examine only direct state appropriations, KU is second at $1899 per capita, only $11 less than Kentucky at the top of the list.

What's more telling is that Kansas is 7th out of the 8 states in federal funds per capita at $1583, or $1292 less than Oklahoma and $587 less than Iowa.

In other words, Kansas spends state funds on a per capita basis on par with other states, but in the final tally still seems to fall behind in total government resources flowing to higher ed. In other words, perhaps Kansans aren't getting what they pay for.

What that final fact tells me is that Kansas colleges and universities don't compete well for federal funding, something that KU has been working to fix -- unsuccessfully -- for quite a while.

(Happy to have my figures corrected or adjusted by other posters; I posted this pretty rapidly)

yourworstnightmare 6 years, 5 months ago

I stand corrected. Yes, billions, not millions.

Also, you are correct that Kansas competes very poorly for federal funds, which supports Mr. Simons' contention.

KU has suffered under low expectations with regard to external funding for a very long time. It is changing, but there are still very powerful people at KU who don't see the value in external funding.

It is my experience that there is almost no expectation for external funding in the languages, humanities, and much of social sciences.

kochmoney 6 years, 5 months ago

Blah, blah, blah, blah. I'm a cranky, bitter old man that didn't get appointed to the Regents.

cowboy 6 years, 5 months ago

Given the current condition of the LJW maybe you should enlist some Biz School folks for some guidance.

Seriously , every column ragging on KU , what is your problem ?

Lawrence Morgan 6 years, 5 months ago

The Board of Regents should open a "suggestion box" - perhaps a web page - which entertains totally new ideas,and then these should be discussed publicly by all the public.

Why not put all universities under one roof, like the University of Kansas at Ft. Hayes, etc., and then emphasize community colleges in all major towns? Why not?

Ft. Hayes, for example, has really good ideas about online education. We should improve that with persons from throughout Kansas who don't necessarily have degrees but know what they are talking about, including online tutors.

The same thing is true with jobs. Many jobs don't require half of what KU says they do. This is just a way of keeping the people with degrees having the jobs, so it results in a very closed circle.

Open it up!

It would change the power structure completely, and even more important, the INFORMATION structure.

Information should come from all kinds of people, all ages and all professions.

Why put up with University athletics in their current form? All that money is a tremendous waste. Perhaps the Board of Regents like football games, which limits the kind of Board of Regents we have. But how about a Board of Regents who doesn't like football, but instead cares about music, science, art, history, teaching, and research?

I don't know about all of Dolph's ideas, but he has some good points. Stop wasting your time ragging on Dolph and put down some real ideas of your own in these comments.

And as for the regents, i suspect that many of them have no ideas of their own either. They are appointed because they are rich, powerful, and friends of the governor and his friends. They need to be changed too. Open the web page and get it started!

Paul R Getto 6 years, 4 months ago

"Why put up with University athletics in their current form? All that money is a tremendous waste." === Perhaps, but that money, which is mainly private, would not be given to the academic programs or added to tax expenditures by the legislature. Those who give to athletics would keep it themselves, give it to another cause or spend it. Tax support of university academic programs and athletics are not closely related.

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