Opinion: Legislature undermining higher ed

August 22, 2013


I spent the past several months in upstate New York on sabbatical from the university and this column. I spent that time doing research and writing and, generally, trying to stay away from Kansas politics. I did keep up with the news by reading the Kansas newspapers, including the Journal-World online, so when I came back a few weeks ago, I was not shocked by all that has been happening in the state. Nevertheless, I must admit that I am not optimistic about the future of higher education in Kansas.

It was certainly disappointing to read last week that the governor’s explanation for the cuts to higher education was that it happened as a result of last-minute horse-trading in the Legislature. The future of higher education in Kansas is, at least in my opinion, too important to be left to last minute-political deals. But even more troubling is the seeming deep antipathy for higher education and the Kansas Board of Regents universities shown by some members of the Legislature.

The rhetoric coming from these legislators is that they are punishing the universities for raising tuition over the past several years. Indeed, one prominent member of the Legislature has asserted over and over that he is troubled by the way Kansas universities are spending their funds. I wonder just how much these legislators know about the operations of the universities and the massive cuts that have been made in the past two decades. I also wonder how further cuts, which directly hurt faculty, staff and students, are an appropriate response to concerns about matters about which they have no say. I can say for a fact that the faculty, the staff and the students have absolutely no control over tuition increases, the size of the administration, or any of the other matters that seem to have so enraged some legislators. Our job is to teach and learn and to provide Kansas with an educated citizenry and skilled workforce. I believe that we are doing that and doing so under difficult financial constraints.

When I came to Kansas and Kansas University in 1994, I believed that Kansas was a state with a proud, populist heritage that included strong support for education at every level. Over the years, I have seen that commitment waver. When the state was experiencing financial difficulties because of a bad economy, I did not complain about cuts. I have consistently said that KU should not increase tuition to the point that a university education is too expensive for the average Kansan. But what now is going on doesn’t seem to be connected to economic concerns at all.

Now it appears that some members of the Legislature have decided to do everything they can to diminish higher education in Kansas. They seem to fail to grasp the connection between the cuts in state funding for education that they enact and the tuition increases that follow. They assume, without hard data, that Kansas universities are inefficiently operated. And they punish students, staff and faculty because of these beliefs. It is time for the governor and the people of Kansas to think quite seriously about whether they want an educated workforce and citizenry because, if they do, they need to make sure the Legislature stops trying to undermine that goal.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


Larry Sturm 4 years, 9 months ago

The problem is the legislature is working for the Koch brothers and not for the state of Kansas.

George Lippencott 4 years, 9 months ago

There have been a number of recent opinion pieces deploring in some manner the state of higher education in Kansas. Most of these articles ultimately point to a lack of state support (read resources) as the primary concern.

What I seem to sense is a perception that the legislature has the limited function of supporting higher education at the level the education advocates present or it is deemed as not supporting higher education.

That is essentially an educator centered approach. The educators determine what is required to address an educator developed view of what higher education is. I find that a bit narrow minded.

Certainly the professional educators should for example set the standards for what constitutes an education within the disciplines offered. Certainly they should evaluate students as to their accomplishment in attaining that education.

But IMHO the legislature as a representative of the taxpayers of Kansas has a role in determining how board higher education should be in the state. For example some fields of study might be left to the educational establishments in other states. Perhaps there should be more specialization among our various institutions.

As a state function our higher education institutions are accountable to the legislature for how money is spent no matter the source. Is the real question before us the efficiency of the operation of the university or the scope of the activities at the universities? Is it not up to the taxpayers of Kansas to determine the level of students to be supported and the degrees to be offered? There are many other for profit institution that can offer services to those seeking a field of study not offered at a Kansas state institution.

I also think we frame the argument to paint the legislature as acting irresponsibly. The legislature is responsible to the people of Kansas who may be justly concerned at the costs of educating their children in disciplines related to job needs here in Kansas. I might observe that it is essentially the same people paying taxes as paying tuition given the regressive state of taxation and the level of student participation here in Kansas

There is hardly an institution on the planet that is allowed to set its own course and expect somebody else to just fund it. Why should higher education in Kansas be any different?

Mike Hoeflich 4 years, 9 months ago


I agree that the Legislature has the responsibility to ensure that the funding it provides is well-spent. However, I would make two points:

  1. The educational mission of the universities is fundamentally and primarily the concern of the Board of Regents and of the Legislature only secondarily. IF the Legislature wants direct control of the universities it should abolish the Board of Regents;

  2. I do not object to legislative oversight of the universities; I object to what appears to be legislative action based solely on politics and not on concerns about the scope of the university mission with which you are concerned. I have not heard meaningful debate in the Legislature about duplication of programs among the Regents Universities nor about leaving some educational programs to other non-public or non-Kansas institutions. I would welcome such debate if it were fact-driven and rational. The Legislative criticism seems, instead, to focus on what some members think is university inefficiency, i.e. needless spending, and that I believe is neither fact-based nor accurate.

George Lippencott 4 years, 9 months ago

I share your concerns as to the publicly stated reason for the recent cuts. If those statements reflect the true reason it would be most unfortunate. But I suspect that those comments were more related to an unskilled response to media than the true reasons behind the actions of the majority of legislators that voted for the cuts.

The Board of Regents are appointed by the governor. Could it be possible that the legislature (or elements within it) are dissatisfied with their oversight? I believe that the board will soon (if not already) have a majority of members appointed by the current administration. It will be interesting to see how the board responds to proposals for the next legislative session.

There was an article in this mornings WSJ on the topic of funding for higher education. Their material indicated that since the 92-93 school year the cost of higher education has increased 127% while the income of the people supporting state sponsored education has only increased 7%. An increase of the magnitude would at least to me suggest that we are not neglecting higher education.

In the President's comments on the road today he suggested efforts to try to determine the worth of institutions of higher education using a set of tools to evaluate them with an objective of redirecting federal funding. I am not sure exactly what he means but the comments do not to me constitute a ringing endorsement of the status qua.

I personally do not know what constitutes adequate funding. I am not sure we even have a common sense of what we want. That said, however, it may well be time to collectively step back for a period and re-validate our goals and the means we are using to meet them.

positive 4 years, 9 months ago

This graph is adjusted for inflation. The COST of the education has increased by about $2000 in real terms. The fraction that is paid by the student has increased. What the graph shows is that Kansas institutions have been good stewards the of their funds relative to the entire population of schools in the US (according the WSJ cited above). It also shows that the legislature has decreased funding dramatically.

KU funding graphic

KU funding graphic

One can and should debate the ideal fraction of state support , but it doesn't make sense to say that the universities have huge increases in costs ($2000 since the early 90's). The cost to the STUDENT has indeed increased.

George Lippencott 4 years, 9 months ago

By my calculations fees and tuition have increased about 380% since 1992 times while state funding has declined about 23%. Currently they are about equal in contribution to the university. (inflation included)

The difference between us is that my numbers are costs to a student where your numbers are costs per student. There are many more students here now then there were in 92.

positive 4 years, 9 months ago

My point isn't to disagree with the fact that a student pays more (even after adjusting for inflation). The graphic above just shows that the inflation adjusted cost to the university of providing a college education rose from $13,137 to $15,351. The state contributed $9036 in 1992 and now contributes $5849 (less now and falling, that was 2011). The point is that the burden has shifted to the student. I am not suggesting a dollar amount of contribution, nor a fraction from the state that would be "best". Reasonable people will disagree, with some saying the state should contribute zero, others more. However, these numbers suggest that it is not because KU just decided to be less efficient. The numbers suggest that the state gives far less now than in 1992, adjusted for inflation, and as a percentage of the true cost incurred by the university.

George Lippencott 4 years, 9 months ago

Actually what the data shows is that we have a lot more stuidents. The state's portion has not declined all that much given a relatively stable university population (increases based on population increases). Somebody has decided that the university should provide a college education to a lot higher percentage of the rising generation. They then argue that the state (taxpayers) should pay for all these increases even though there has been no dialogue about the student increase.

The real question is what percentage of the rising generation should be afforded a college education at taxpayer expense. No institution that I know of is allowed to expand its output and demand that the taxpayers pay for that expansion..

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago


But, a public university is a public entity, and thus serves...the public. Are you saying that we should restrict enrollment, so that many citizens who want to go to public universities can't? Seems to me that public schools exist so that people can utilize them, and if more people want to go to college, that's generally a good thing, and serves us all well.

With a caveat about preparation and ability to do well, of course.

Also, if we make it too expensive for students to attend, that kind of defeats the purpose of public education, don't you think?

George Lippencott 4 years, 9 months ago

Well in my day public education was K-12. When did it become K-16 or 20?? The public can certainly vote to make it that way but that brings up two points

  1. The current administration is presumable (until the next election) reflecting the interests of the majority who do not go to college.

2 Somebody has to pay for a guaranteed K-20 education and we are back to my comments about the majority destroying the minority.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Well, state universities are "public" universities, rather than "private" ones, right?

Your first point is possible, but disturbing, in a couple of ways. First, in that you assume the majority of Kansans didn't go to college, and second, that people have such a narrow view that they only support things that directly benefit themselves.

Please explain how providing an education for more citizens destroys anything.

George Lippencott 4 years, 9 months ago

Do you do anything other than post?

The majority has not graduated from college! I believe that some people act altruistically. I also believe that a vast majority of people act with an eye on their own interests.

IF we want to move to a guaranteed K-20 we need to have a discussion not a coercion.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Of course.

That's unfortunate if true. All of that paragraph.

We've had discussions on that for many years, at different levels. Politicians at both state and federal levels discuss and debate higher education, and I believe that the Board of Regents does as well, etc.

Elected and appointed officials (appointed by elected ones) are supposed to reflect the desires of the majority - the structural problem of unrepresented minorities is hard to solve. But, I feel that it's more problematic that elected officials aren't in fact representing the majority in many ways.

For example, the majority of Americans would like politicians to work together, but we have obstruction and gridlock. They believe that a balanced approach of cutting spending but raising revenue is best, but we don't get that. They believe that the wealth distribution in this country isn't great, and would like for wealth to be more equitably/evenly distributed.

What coercion?

George Lippencott 4 years, 9 months ago

What are you talking about. We have not had a national discussion on K-20 vs K-12. Did the left talk to itself?

Taxation is coercion. I get no say. Don't tell me I can vote. When a majority pays little or noting there is no democracy when it comes to taxation. The idea was progressive taxation not no taxation of half the populace and a cutoff of progressiveness for the top earners.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Ah, ok.

Now you're venturing into libertarian territory.

If you haven't heard any discussion about education and funding of it, then I would have to conclude you're not paying attention to politics very much. Those on the right have been arguing against public education and public funding of it for years now, while those on the left argue in the other direction. What would you call that other than a public discussion/debate?

If you have such a problem with our system, I suppose you could look at other countries, but I doubt you'd find one that you like better. Libertarians have a real problem in that there aren't any libertarian countries for them to move to.

George Lippencott 4 years, 9 months ago

We have a very hard time determining what a majority wants. In Kansas the left argues that because a sizable portion of the electorate did not vote the majority has not spoken.

At the national level when there is a 2% difference between the parties and millions did not vote the left argues that there was a majority even though the people's house is held by the opposition.


jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Both sides make that mistake.

With about 50% of the population not voting, we can't determine the "will of the majority" with any sort of accuracy.

I consistently say that, regardless of who gets elected, or at what level.

George Lippencott 4 years, 9 months ago

Except above, if I understood you, where you argue the majority wants K-20 paid through taxes.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

I never said anything of the sort.

I said a couple of things based on surveys and polls that show most people want the government to work to solve problems, etc. but that's not happening, which means that our elected officials aren't even representing the majority very well.

And, I've never interpreted the results of very close elections in which about 1/2 the people aren't even voting as a "mandate" or "landslide" or anything like that.

George Lippencott 4 years, 9 months ago

Good because it sure seemed that you did.

The people in their "wisdom" choose to split the congress. Which is the majority? The majority in the house or the majority in the Senate or the plurality who voted for Mr. Obama? Perhaps the people really wanted "gridlock" Or maybe they hoped that by denying any party clear victory compromise would be the order of the day taking the edge off the extreme elements in either party..

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

When surveyed, people overwhelmingly want the various parties to work together to solve problems, not gridlock.

Perhaps you're right, and that's what they were thinking, I don't know. If so, it's not working very well.

JayhawkFan1985 4 years, 9 months ago

If only 1 is needed...KU is the flagship university for the state so Washburn would have to go. Perhaps Washburn should only offer undergrad degrees...

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