It’s easy to understand why members of the Kansas Board of Regents would be chagrined by the higher education budget cuts approved by the Kansas Legislature and signed by Gov. Sam Brownback.
The fact that the regents also seem genuinely surprised by this development is a little harder to explain.
At their meeting last week, the regents approved tuition increases for all six state universities and began to discuss how they could convince the Legislature to restore about $44 million that was cut from higher education over the next two years.
That won’t be easy, considering that a key Republican leader in the Kansas House reportedly dismissed the regents criticisms of the budget cuts as “baloney.”
The regents probably thought they were in a relatively strong position when they had Brownback singing their tune in support of a flat budget for higher education. Having the governor touring the state to promote a flat budget probably seemed like a good strategy. Unfortunately, the governor’s public support didn’t seem to have much effect on state legislators negotiating the budget. It would have been interesting to sit in on those negotiations to see exactly how hard the governor fought to maintain university funding.
For whatever reason, legislators rejected that course, saying they were angry over university tuition increases and that universities should be able to operate more efficiently and accomplish just as much with less state funding. They seemed unable to make the connection that Regent Kenny Wilk made between supporting higher education and boosting the state economy. Wilk, a former leader in the Kansas House who understands something about how the Legislature works, also wondered aloud whether higher education officials were doing a good job of spreading that message about education and the economy.
That’s a question that has been floating around the Board of Regents for awhile. The governor seemed to embrace the higher education message this year, but it didn’t get through to legislators. That’s unlikely to change unless members of the Kansas public get on board with higher education and insist that their elected representatives do the same or risk being dismissed in the next election cycle.
Regents can’t assume that the majority of Kansans share their enthusiasm for higher education. Although the regents believe in the need for tuition increases to offset budget cuts, rising tuition has placed a university education out of reach for some Kansas students, which hurts public support for those schools. It also increases the image of universities as “elite” institutions that aren’t interested in average Kansans.
Somehow higher education leaders need to explain how what’s happening at state universities relates to the entire state. They need to show how it provides jobs for university graduates, as well as those without college degrees. They need to remind people of the care available to them through the new National Cancer Center because of the state’s investment in Kansas University Medical Center. They need to connect cutting edge research taking place at state universities with ventures that will build the state economy. And they need to convince Kansans that every tax dollar that goes to higher education is being well spent.
Funding for higher education has become a political football. To win this game, higher education leaders are going to have to develop a fan base outside of Topeka.