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.