Last week, this column focused on the inability of members of the Kansas Board of Regents to know what is going on at the campuses of the six universities they govern and the other 26 state higher education institutions they are responsible for coordinating.
Nine men and women, all volunteers and part-timers who serve at no pay, as dedicated as they may be, currently have no way to be as aware as they should of what is going on at these campuses.
Higher education takes a huge bite out of the state’s general fund, and taxpayers deserve the best possible management of these educational facilities.
With state legislators currently engaged in serious debate about taxes, which programs to fund and which to reduce or eliminate, it would seem timely and appropriate for lawmakers and the governor to take a serious look at how tax dollars are being spent at the schools under the supervision of the regents — and to be sure the universities’ chancellor and presidents are measuring up in every respect.
State legislators and the governor should give serious consideration to how to update the state’s higher education system to give taxpayers the best return on their dollars.
This matter of paying closer attention to what is taking place at our universities and the cost of higher education now has attracted the attention of President Obama, who said in his State of the Union address earlier this week that more attention needs to be given to the cost of a college education and making sure higher education is available to more individuals.
Although it is a touchy subject, the fact is the six universities in the Board of Regents system have different missions and different capabilities. However, as the system works today, these six schools are handled as a single package, along with the KU School of Medicine and the Kansas State University School of Veterinary Medicine.
How about changing this traditional method of overseeing and supervising Kansas’ system of higher education?
Consider the possibility of a board of regents for KU and KSU and another board for the other four universities in Wichita, Hays, Emporia and Pittsburg. A board focusing on KU and KSU alone could do a much better job of knowing what is going on and have far better firsthand knowledge of the strengths, weaknesses and needs of the institutions.
Each of the state universities do a good job in their respective areas. Fort Hays, for example, under the leadership and vision of President Ed Hammond, has been an innovative leader — actually the state’s leader — in many areas such as distance learning. Fort Hays has a highly praised mathematics program for superior high school students and is able to hold down tuition costs and continue to enjoy increased enrollment numbers. How much do the regents know about or appreciate what Hammond and his associates have been able to develop at Fort Hays?
All the schools need attention and help, as well as corrective actions by the regents, but with 32 institutions to oversee, this is almost an impossibility.
Instead of merely saying this is just the challenge they face and that we’ll have to accept it, why not think about ways to change and provide the state, students, faculty and taxpayers a better, more up-to-date system of governance and supervision?
As noted above, it is a touchy subject, but KU and KSU have a different mission and role to play. This does not lessen the importance and role of the other schools. On the contrary, a revision or major change in the regents system would benefit each and every school. Having one board of regents for KU and KSU and another for the other schools would immediately guarantee more attention to each institution. Everyone is a winner.
As has been suggested in previous Saturday Columns, another method of improving the ability of regents to be better informed and more knowledgeable about what is happening on the campuses would be to form small groups of individuals for each school to serve as eyes and ears for the regents. Recent events offer ample evidence of cover-ups by senior university people or the unwillingness of regents to address serious matters. At least this is the case at KU.
Regents can’t be held accountable for being “out of the loop” if they don’t know what’s going on. A small group of advisers for each school could be a great help and take away this convenient excuse.
It is hoped the governor and state legislators will give serious consideration to how to make sure our state system of higher education is working as efficiently as possible — not only working efficiently but also working to raise the excellence of each institution. Is there proper leadership at each university? How are vacancies filled and what’s the best way to eliminate mediocrity? Are the leaders held accountable, and are they allowed to stay in office too long? How about the traditional system of filling vacancies? Shouldn’t this be improved?
The governor and legislators need to get serious about the question of how well the state universities are being run, their record of success relative to peer institutions and whether state taxpayers are getting the maximum benefit from their dollars.
There’s no reason Kansas cannot have one of the nation’s finest systems of state-aided higher education, but it will require an enlightened and committed Board of Regents and increased fiscal support — state, as well as federal. One of the best ways to encourage greater overall fiscal support is to have visionary leaders who can inspire and focus on upgrading the excellence of both students and faculty. State legislators, federal grant makers, parents of students and interested and generous alumni are far more likely to favor those schools that demonstrate excellence rather than accepting mediocrity.
A knowledgeable and properly motivated Board of Regents is essential if the state’s system of higher education is to accomplish more than just keeping pace with other schools. It can, and should, be a leader.
As one of Kansas City’s truly outstanding leaders once said, “KU should be the lighthouse of the great Midwest prairie states.”