Members of both the Kansas Legislature and the Kansas Board of Regents recently have expressed a desire to forge a better working relationship, but early steps in that direction aren’t going particularly well.
At their annual retreat last week, the regents spent considerable time discussing how to better communicate the state’s higher education needs to legislators. Before passing a budget that cuts 3 percent from state university budgets over this year and next, a number of legislators expressed frustration with tuition increases approved by the Board of Regents. In an apparent attempt to respond to that criticism, the regents decided last week to offer to hold tuition steady if legislators agreed to restore the university funding that had been cut.
If the regents had left it at that, the idea of using flat tuition to negotiate for additional university funding might have been on the table. However, the discussion didn’t end there and one regent added that if state funding isn’t restored, “all bets are off on tuition.”
What one regent initially described as a “powerful message,” now was a line in the sand. Legislative leaders reacted with anger, accusing the regents of “using students as hostages to unnecessarily extract money from taxpayers.”
It was an inauspicious beginning to a supposed effort to improve the relationship between the regents and state legislators.
The regents need to be strong advocates for higher education in the state, but they apparently could use some lessons in how to make their case to state legislators. Considering that three of the nine regents are themselves former state legislators, it’s a little surprising that the board didn’t anticipate the negative reaction of lawmakers to their tuition rhetoric.
By the same token, considering legislators’ strong rhetoric about rising tuition, they perhaps shouldn’t have reacted so negatively and dismissively to an indication that the regents were willing to consider holding the line on further increases.
Let’s hope that things go a little better when members of the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Ways and Means Committee visit state university campuses later this year. Senate President Susan Wagle said after funding for the visits was approved that the meetings would promote “two-way communication” on higher education issues.
That kind of communication involves listening as well as talking and it works best when people truly are willing to consider different points of view. We hope the upcoming meetings will help produce the unified base of support that the Kansas higher education system so desperately needs.