Sometimes, you don’t want to stand out.
Unfortunately, that’s the case with the Sunflower State these days. We’re one of five states that has reduced state funding to public universities, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Contrarian actions sometimes can represent a valuable strategic gamble. Usually, however, they’re a terrible misjudgment, and that’s probably the situation for our state universities.
The average increase in education funding for the states in the survey (data from three were unavailable or changing) was 3.6 percent. In Kansas, however, the Legislature found it possible to put in place reductions of about 3 percent annually for the next two years.
So it’s a tough road ahead for Kansas University and its sister institutions as they try to maintain programs and retain valued faculty members. Their competitors are getting a fresh infusion of dollars from legislators elsewhere who realize that education can drive their states’ economic well-being.
Former Kansas lawmaker Kenny Wilk, now vice chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, appeared to lament the Legislature’s action. “It’s not just about the universities. It’s about the overall health and well-being of our state and growing our economy,” he said. “I think it’s a great investment.”
Kansas, however, is hewing to the conservative Republican agenda that everything from the Kansas Turnpike to universities, from K-12 education to health spending, must be cut in order to finance the grand experiment of eliminating the state income tax. Supposedly that change will spur overwhelming economic growth and supercharge the state’s economy. The streets will be paved with gold!
But the unkindest cut of all for the universities may be the sentiment expressed by House Speaker Ray Merrick. Giving lip service to the importance of higher education to the Kansas economy, he added that the institutions should be held accountable for their spending and specifically complained about recent tuition increases. Regents noted that state funding for the universities now is at a lower level than in 2001; students and their parents are taking up the slack.
In all this mess, it’s unfortunate that there’s no dynamic individual to speak up for the value of higher education and challenge the small-minded thinkers who seem to have grabbed the microphone.
Until that happens, Kansas will continue to stand out. Like a sore thumb.