Washburn University officials announced last week plans to build a new $40 million law school building. The current building, which opened in 1969 after the university suffered tremendous damage from a tornado, is about 96,000 square feet and accommodates approximately 420 students.
Washburn President Jerry Farley said the new 152,600-square-foot building would be financed through a $20 million fundraising campaign, plus $10 million from the university’s reserve fund and another $10 million in short-term bonds.
Farley, who has done an excellent job for Washburn, said it was important to improve the law school building for a “signature program” at Washburn. He added, “When I hear people around the country talk about Washburn, they always mention the excellence of the school of law. It has truly developed a phenomenal reputation. But right now, we don’t have the building we need for a world-class school of law in the 21st century.”
Farley would not be doing a good job for Washburn, its students and the city of Topeka if he didn’t try to improve the university’s facilities and aim for excellence.
However, the law school effort brings up a longtime debate: Does Kansas, with a population of something less than 3 million, need two law schools within 30 miles of one another? At a time when the cost of higher education continues to escalate, does it make sense to duplicate efforts at two schools located so close together?
The Washburn plan extends the debate. If only one law school is needed, which one should be closed: Kansas University or Washburn? The same question could be raised about many other duplicated programs such as engineering schools.
Washburn’s expansion plans come at a time when KU law school officials forecast smaller enrollments in their school as they seek higher levels of excellence among both students and faculty. There also seem to be far more attorneys and law students looking for jobs than there are current job openings.
Although there are sure to be naysayers, KU is the “flagship” academic and research institution for Kansas. There are significant efforts under way to raise the overall excellence of the school, and KU has the potential, if there is the leadership, to be a true regional and national leader in many areas.
This does not mean the other Kansas Board of Regents universities are not good and cannot be better, have high goals, conduct sound research and be outstanding in various fields. But KU should be the state’s truly distinguished institution. There are only so many dollars available for the 32 schools under the regents’ umbrella, and, at some point, the regents are going to have to get serious about the waste or unnecessary expenditure of dollars on duplicate academic programs. This means KU may have to reduce or eliminate some of its programs and that other schools, such as Kansas State and Wichita, may have to do the same if Kansas and its taxpayers are to get the biggest bang for the millions of dollars they are spending for higher education. Generous alumni and friends can only be expected to dig into their pocketbooks so often and so deep to help fund the never-satisfied money appetites of chancellors, presidents and athletic directors for money year after year.