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.