Sailors and other mariners always are alert and concerned when weather conditions are such that the elements can combine to create a “perfect storm.” Such situations can be deadly for those caught in the confluence of high winds, huge punishing seas and blinding rain. These conditions are triggered when a low pressure system collides with a high pressure system and warm, moist air pushes in from a tropical system.
Although such situations and conditions are found on the high seas, it seems as if Kansans living on the plains of middle America are witnessing another type of “perfect storm.”
This storm involves state lawmakers, the Kansas Board of Regents, the governor, university administrators, state taxpayers, students, parents of students, teachers and those engaged in big-time college athletics.
The vessel caught in this perfect Kansas storm is called “higher education.”
Those involved in this story have created huge angry waves of blame, partisan politics, stubbornness, inflexibility and a bit of ignorance, along with a lack of common sense, almost impenetrable visibility and dangerous strikes of anger and heated tempers — all of which can cause deep and lasting scars, just as an oceanic perfect storm can sink a vessel.
In today’s economy, most states are encountering problems relative to proper funding for state-aided higher education. However, according to several individuals with deep and wide knowledge of what is happening in higher education throughout the nation, it is difficult to name a state with a larger or more contentious challenge that the one now facing Kansas.
How long will this storm last, and how severe will the lasting damage be?
Kansas regents just gave KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little a $60,000 raise and did the same for Kansas State President Kirk Schulz. The other four state university presidents received pay raises ranging from $15,000 to $6,000.
At the same time, regents and state legislators have pinched faculty salary increases to 2 percent, keeping salaries on a minimal life support infusion over the past several years.
Faculty morale is bad, very bad, for numerous reasons.
Some state legislators claim universities are not being run efficiently, that they waste money and do not get the maximum production or effort from their faculty, particularly full professors. Cutbacks in state funding have triggered higher tuition for students, which, in turn, is likely to bring about higher debts for students and/or their families. This could cause a reduction in enrollment numbers.
At a time of major penny-pinching and cutbacks throughout the campus, those in the athletic department are enjoying multimillion-dollar salaries, record high revenues and making plans for multimillion-dollar expansion projects. This doesn’t sit well with many of those working in Mount Oread classrooms.
Added to this is the question being raised by many on and off the campus: If the KU Endowment Association can afford to give the chancellor a $60,000 pay raise and participate in the multimillion-dollar Rock Chalk Park development, isn’t there something they could do to help improve faculty salaries?
Justified or not — the opinions vary — there are growing questions among KU faculty about the effectiveness, leadership and vision of KU Chancellor Gray-Little. At the same time, there is increased appreciation and respect across the state for the vision and entrepreneurship of Fort Hays State President Ed Hammond.
The regents continue to be a puzzle because they do not seem to have a firm handle on what is going on at the various campuses they oversee. Or, if they do know of troubles, they appear to lack the courage or backbone to make timely and necessary changes or improvements. Just this week, Gov. Sam Brownback appointed three new members to this important body and, unfortunately, initial reactions to the appointments have been far less than enthusiastic or positive. As one senior KU professor said, “I am most disappointed. We really do need some folks of true substance with better political antennae on the board. It sure doesn’t look like that.”
Again, morale at KU is bad and getting worse.
What we have is a giant mess, a stalemate, an arm-wrestling contest between relative incompetents, a game of “chicken” or a stare-down among political leaders to see who blinks first, a weak and underperforming Board of Regents, a lack of strong leadership in Topeka throughout the Statehouse and, unfortunately, a lack of leadership at the state’s “flagship” institution of higher learning, which sets the standards for the entire state.
As a result, higher education in Kansas is merely drifting along with the tide, treading water, falling further behind while other states and other universities take advantage of Kansas’ higher education quagmire.
Why can’t Kansas be a leader in higher education, serving as an example for other states to emulate?
The longer the current situation is allowed to fester, the more difficult it will be to get KU, as well as the other regents institutions, performing up to their potential and contributing to the betterment of the state.
Currently, it is a sad and embarrassing situation.
Where is the leadership?