Members of the Kansas Board of Regents have a right to be outraged about funding cuts inflicted on higher education by the Kansas Legislature.
The budget reductions approved last weekend were about more than just the money. They were an effort to micromanage and punish a university system that legislators apparently believe they are more qualified to run than the regents or university leaders who now have the job.
First, there was an across-the-board cut of 1.5 percent for the next two years. Then legislators added an arbitrary salary cap, bringing the total cut for two years to 5.7 percent. Kansas University’s Lawrence campus will see a 3.8 percent cut, while the KU Medical Center will try to absorb an 8.2 percent cut. The only rationale legislators offered for these cuts was a vague impression that it would be easy for universities to handle these, and even greater, cuts.
And they should be able to make those cuts without reducing enrollments or programs, according to legislative logic. The legislative attack on KUMC is particularly notable. While approving an 8.2 percent funding cut in the next two years, legislators added a provision forbidding the medical school from reducing enrollment and eliminating programs at any of its campuses. The Medical Center apparently is supposed to meet the Legislature’s demand that it graduate more doctors and nurses, while getting its new National Cancer Center off the ground — all while its funding is cut by 8.2 percent.
A proposal to provide $35 million in bonding authority and $10 million in funding to jump-start construction for a new medical education building at KUMC also fell by the wayside. Although that building was deemed necessary to train more physicians in the state, Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, led the charge to cancel funding because he said KU had been irresponsible in raising tuition over the past 10 years.
Is there any wonder that the word “vindictive” came up in the regents’ discussions last week?
The case certainly could be made that the Board of Regents should have worked harder to head off these cuts before they happened rather than simply complain after they occurred. However, it’s also true that the loyal support the regents gave throughout the session to Gov. Brownback’s position that higher education funding should remain steady gives them a right to expect the governor now to take reasonable action to mitigate the damage. Specifically, the regents urged the governor to veto the university salary caps, a micromanaging provision they accurately see as bad public policy.
The governor should consider that and other options. After both houses of the Legislature approved higher education funding cuts, Brownback toured university and community college campuses across the state touting his support for higher education. If that tour is to be viewed as anything more than political pandering, Brownback now needs to step up with some concrete action. If the governor truly placed such a high priority on education funding, he should have been able to use his leadership to get his party’s support for that position.
For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. The governor said Friday he was reviewing his options on the higher education budget. He should take whatever action he can to confirm his support for the state’s higher education system.