Topeka Three new members of the Kansas Board of Regents, who are expected to be confirmed this week by the state Senate, bring varied backgrounds to a group that is fighting for funding for higher education and facing criticism from legislative leaders.
Shane Bangerter is an attorney in Dodge City and a founding partner of Reiben Bangerter Reiben; Ann Brandau-Murguia is a commissioner on the Kansas City, Kan., governing board; and Helen Van Etten is an audiologist with the Topeka school district.
They were selected by Gov. Sam Brownback in June to serve four-year terms on the nine-member board, which oversees a system of 32 public higher education institutions, including seven universities, 19 community colleges, and 6 technical colleges.
The three already have participated in a board retreat and will officially take up their duties once they are confirmed by the senate.
Higher education, specifically public universities, has been under fire from conservative Republican legislators, who have complained about tuition increases and administrative expenses.
During the last legislative session, Republicans approved budget cuts to the universities, and Brownback signed them into law, making Kansas one of the few states in the country that has cut higher education as the nation rebounds from the recession. Brownback has since vowed to seek a restoration of the cuts.
The three new members say they are ready to meet and discuss funding and other issues with legislators. They say they share legislators' concerns about tuition, but also want to make the case that the state's economic well-being is linked to a strong post-secondary system.
They bring varied backgrounds to their new roles.
Bangerter got the bug for higher education as a teen-ager while working on the family farm, as he and his brother were dragging irrigation pipe through the muck on a 100 degree-plus day.
Afterwards, Bangerter said, "I laid in the back of the pickup and said, `I'm going to get a good education and a good job and I'm never coming back to this farm.' "
Bangerter, who is 48, married and has two children, went to Oral Roberts University and Kansas University law school. He has been working in workers' compensation law for more than two decades and has served on the Dodge City Community College board.
Brandau-Murguia was raised in a middle-class family in the small town of Charles City, Iowa.
"There was no way I could go to college without paying for it myself," she said.
So Brandau-Murguia received a basketball scholarship, worked and took out loans to attend and then graduate from Ottawa University. She also was a probation officer for the state of Kansas and received her master's degree in business administration from Baker University.
Brandau-Murguia said law enforcement and criminal justice have interested her since she was a child, when she helped her grandparents run the Charles City jail. They lived in an apartment beside the jail, and Brandau-Murguia would serve the prisoners meals that her grandmother made.
"My goal was to be one of those CSI people before CSI was cool," she said.
Married to U.S. District Court Judge Carlos Murguia, she shifted her career and now serves as executive director of the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association in Kansas City. She also has three children.
Van Etten was born and raised in Taiwan. She came to the United States to attend Wayne State University, where she got a master's degree in audiology. Later she received her Ph.D in audiology from the University of Florida.
She came to Kansas when her husband was accepted at Washburn University law school.
"We moved to Kansas and that is where we stayed," she said. "We love Kansas people. They are very much in sync with my background and beliefs."
Van Etten, 57, has been active in Republican Party politics and serves as a national committeewoman. "I believe in traditional, small government," she said.
All three of the new board members say they are concerned that rising tuition was putting college out of reach for some Kansans, while also recognizing the needs of the universities in light of a downward trend in state funding support.
"The last thing we want to do is raise tuition," Bangerter said. "My preference is that we go in the other direction."
Brandau-Murguia, who represents a low-income area, said she sees the need for affordable higher education every day. "Parents come up to me and say, `I want a different way of life for my children. I want them to go college.' "
In the months ahead, the new regents members say they want to improve relationships with the Legislature. Van Etten said she hopes face-to-face encounters will diffuse some of the recent rhetoric.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, criticized the regents after the board offered to keep tuition level if the Legislature would restore cuts made to higher education. Merrick and Wagle said they felt the regents were holding students hostage to get what they wanted.
"They support higher education," Van Etten said of Merrick and Wagle. "We need to take out the emotion, the we versus them," she said.