Simons’ Saturday Column: KU needs new tactics in its pursuit of state funding

March 23, 2013


Throughout the country, state legislatures are trying to figure out how to accommodate appeals for increased funding for a multitude of programs while also trying to minimize, or even reduce, tax rates on their residents.

At the same time, these state lawmakers must factor in the unknowns relative to the level of federal funding their states will receive and how this will affect the overall fiscal picture of each state.

In all states, education probably commands the biggest share of state funding. This certainly is the case in Kansas, with those at all levels of education — K-12, community colleges and universities — all pleading their cases for adequate funding. What is “adequate” is up for debate, but most school officials warn of serious and damaging consequences if their schools are asked to make do with fewer dollars.

Kansas University officials, like officials at most of the country’s state-aided universities, wage year-round efforts to sell state legislators on the importance of increased funding. Without proper funding, they claim, the university will be unable to sustain — don’t even think about improving — its level of education and research excellence. This, in turn, the argument goes, will be harmful to the state in many ways. Better teachers and researchers will look more favorably on offers from other schools. Bright high school students will consider schools in other states and increase the odds they won’t return to Kansas after their college education. And cutbacks in research will handicap the state in its efforts to attract new industry and business.

This may be true. However, state lawmakers have the challenge of constructing a balanced budget and determining the best way to allocate and distribute a limited number of dollars.

A high percentage of those telling the KU story are KU employees, individuals who have a huge personal stake — financially and career-wise — in the game. Likewise, the university hires professional lobbyists who are trained or skilled in how to sell most any product, in this case, “KU and higher education.”

All these individuals believe in their story and the importance of education, but, at the same time, they justifiably are biased in their outlook on education.

What’s needed are highly respected, influential individuals, not employed by KU, who can be effective, powerful and articulate spokespeople for KU and higher education. KU employees — the chancellor, faculty members and lobbyists — are expected to champion their own causes and their pleas do not make much of an impression on state lawmakers.

In past years, KU chancellors have done an excellent job of setting the stage for the entire system of state universities. They have led the effort to tell an effective story to lawmakers about the importance of proper funding for higher education. Years ago, KU Chancellor Gene Budig and Kansas State President Jon Wefald teamed up to present a united message about funding for all Kansas Board of Regents universities.

Times have changed, however, and for one reason or another, the chancellors and presidents need help. They don’t pack the punch of former university leaders.

What’s needed is the enthusiastic help of Lawrence Chamber of Commerce members, Kansas Chamber members, KU alumni, influential and generous contributors to KU and other state universities, parents of students and others who believe in the state providing a sound, visionary and challenging system of higher education.

Numbers count, and lawmakers pay attention to numbers if they want to get re-elected. Regents can call for increased funding for the schools under their tent, but, here again, that’s what they are supposed to do, and legislators hear their pleas with a muted impact.

Right or wrong, justified or not, the manner in which KU and other state universities are fighting for fiscal support seems to be an uphill struggle. They need far more independent, well-motivated troops in the battle.

In the eyes of too many at KU and elsewhere in Lawrence, there really isn’t much in Kansas west of Topeka. Likewise, many throughout the state look at Lawrence as something far different than the rest of Kansas. This does not help KU’s position among state legislators.

In fact, some here in Lawrence are proud to claim that when you are in Lawrence, you are not in Kansas. They have no hesitation in apologizing for Kansas and telling visitors, “We’re different” and “We are a blue dot in a red state.”

A high percentage of state legislators are well aware of this attitude, which is not helpful when hearing the pleas for more money for KU, especially when KU already gets the biggest share of tax dollars for higher education.

KU is the state’s flagship institution, but in some cases, the manner in which it tells this story in a bragging and in-your-face manner does not win many friends among those affiliated with other regents schools. This includes state legislators. KU has a great story to tell, and it merits more than just “adequate” fiscal support. However, in the eyes of many, KU has the manner and reputation of looking down its nose at the rest of the state.

KU’s decision to position itself as a rung above the other regents universities in its academic, research and admissions standards didn’t win many friends among the other schools, their alumni, friends and admirers.

Like it or not, Lawrence and KU have the reputation of having an elitist attitude and manner. This is not helpful when it comes to asking for money for KU.

At this time, no one knows how state legislators and the governor will fund higher education this year. The state is operating on a tight budget and, to a certain degree, funding levels may be determined by the effectiveness of those who have made the requests and the importance legislators place on the various entities seeking state assistance.

This year’s battle is just about over. Now it’s time to take a hard look at how the effort can, and should, be improved for next year’s campaign. Changes are needed.


Miles Nease 5 years, 3 months ago

I really don't think it matters at all how KU tells its story. These legislators are idiots. Half of them didn't even go to college. They have no idea the value of a good education.

As a Republican, it sickens me how these illiterates fund education, at all levels. This state used to be known for its quality education. Now it is a joke.

KU has no choice but to continue to raise tuition. Our costs are still way below our peers in the AAU, but that doesn't justify Topeka not doing its job.

Jack Martin 5 years, 3 months ago

As you say, the University of Kansas is the flagship university of the state. The other Regents institutions fulfill their roles well, but each institution has a different mission. For this writer to try and create an equivalence between all of Kansas' universities doesn't serve any of them.

To downplay KU's excellence in academics, research, and service to the state, as this piece suggests, doesn't serve our university when it comes time to make the case for KU's value to Kansans. And it certainly doesn't help us compete in Kansas and around the nation when it comes time to recruit talented students, faculty and staff.

Hundreds of alumni advocates are members of Jayhawks for Higher Education and can be counted on to contact their elected officials. And we routinely engage business leaders in advocating for higher education. For examples you don't have to look any further than the successful campaigns to expand the schools of Pharmacy and Engineering, or Chancellor Gray-Little's recent video on the federal budget with Jim Lewis, the chief administrative officer of Black & Veatch.

KU's efforts paid off then, and they're paying off now, such as with the restoration of funding for the KU Cancer Center and the removal of the salary cap - both of which are achievements from just the past week. Not to mention the fact that Governor Brownback proposed no cuts for higher education and included KUMC's Health Education Initiative in his budget.

What would be useful is if universities had advocates in the media who used facts to demonstrate the value of higher education to students and society, rather than always finding fault.

KU_cynic 5 years, 3 months ago

I appreciate your positions in your long-running war of words with Mr. Simons. However, I don't think he's advocating to "downplay KU's excellence in academics, research, and service to the state." The facts do indeed speak for themselves on KU's uniqueness as the state's "best" flagship research university in many dimensions.

However, the contention that among many Kansas constituencies KU officials and constituents appear to look down their noses at others (Simons's words) rings true. That sentiment has been built over many years, and a few recent examples to counter it are merely a good start that must be sustained and reinforced by the chancellor, provost, deans, faculty, student leaders, and KU's friends and advocates in the wider community. Simons suggests KU could use more friends and their help. Now, who can argue with that?

headdoctor 5 years, 3 months ago

This editorial written by Mr Republican himself. Typical baby boomer/tea bag mentality. It is always someone besides them who is at fault or has a short coming. Brownback and company don't listen to anyone except for when it benefits them. What are they suppose to do? Go pay homage to the Koch Brothers hoping they will give the universities a blessing and divine guidance.

Poster shakes head and walks away.

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 3 months ago

It sounds like Mr. Simons wants to keep KU down on the farm.

Kansas legislators are predisposed against higher education and thus will always find fault with it and try to cut it. It is not about making higher education better or even more efficient. It is about destroying it for many legislators.

After all, as voiced in Texas educational standards, critical thinking is bad because it challenges acquired beliefs and makes one question their positions using reason instead of ideology.

The only way that KU will ever have a chance of becoming better is to separate itself once and for all from the knuckle-draggers in the Kansas legislature and state.

KU should become a private institution.

Thinking_Out_Loud 5 years, 3 months ago

Honestly, my comments on other threads aside, I think privatization would be bad both for KU and for the State. It would be bad policy. It would necessarily cause KU to refocus its attention from educating Kansans to recruiting students with the means to pay for a private education--regardless of their state of origin. Where I agree with you, YWN, is that this legislature and the several preceding it have demonstrated through their actions that they do not value higher education. In fact, I think they have demonstrated they don't value education in general.

Your use of the term "knuckle-draggers is pejorative." In my better moments, I hope that I would characterize it as "unfair." At the moment, I think this legislature has earned that particular epithet.

All of that said, if the legislature DOES want to divest from KU, K-State, and/or any other public university in the state, they should have the intellectual integrity and the moral fortitude to announce their intentions and simply do so. The gradual reduction of support is having the effect of weaning these institutions off State support, as it is. Let us simply agree that this is this legislature's interest as concerns higher education, let them acknowledge that the will of the people to have a legitimate and efficacious educational system AT ALL LEVELS is not of importance to them, and have them create and pass a plan to sever the state's ties with whichever university(s) they see fit.

I guess, in simpler terms, I am daring the legislature to put up or shut up on this topic.

Scott Drummond 5 years, 3 months ago

The irony of this TeaBaggedrepublican bemoaning the dangers of insufficient levels of tax dollar funding for the government university is rich.

Of course Mr. Simons, paragon of right wing, by your own bootstraps virtue, owes his wealth, position and exalted private sector business worthiness to generations of such funding, and rails against the evils of government regularly from this inherited perch. so perhaps it is not irony, but just another example of right winger projection.

Poor people are begrudged a $300 check, but Mr. Simon's town and customer base, well, that's another story.

blindrabbit 5 years, 3 months ago

yourworstnightmare: Agree totally, KU, Endowment need to sit down and see potential funding measures for privatizing (partially or totally) My guess is State would just as soon be out of the KU business anyway, too much Progressive thinking from KU for the idiots in the Legislature and Regents to comprehend anyway. Also would solve the maintenance of Building and Grounds issues that The State has neglected by removing that responsibility.

blindrabbit 5 years, 3 months ago

Would be interesting to see what the State would consider a fair price for the KU Campus (B&G, etc) if it were to "sell" to a privatized KU???

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 3 months ago

The state should donate it with the promise that they never have to give another cent to support KU.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

The answer, Dear Editor.....quit supporting Tea Party types. Elect Democrats and moderate Republicans. You supported these KKKlowns, including 31% Sam. You should be happy with the outcome. Do not whine now.

blindrabbit 5 years, 3 months ago

Citing the moves of the Kansas Governor Brownback, the Kansas Legislature and the State Regents one Mr. P. Floyd said "We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control, leave them kids alone". The thought came to him while he was trying to put another brick in a wall he was building.

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