In recent weeks, as the 2014 legislative session has gathered steam, the tensions between certain legislators and higher education officials in Kansas have become manifest. Increasingly, the accusation that universities are “elitist” institutions somehow divorced from the general public is surfacing again. As the Kansas Board of Regents attempts to increase the number of Kansans with post-high school education there are those in the Legislature who see this not as a positive outcome, but, rather, as a negative to be avoided. This is a terrible mistake in my opinion.
Public universities in Kansas are not elitist in origin, in philosophy, in demographics, nor in outlook. The whole reason for public universities to exist is to offer multiple educational experiences to all of the residents of the state not just those wealthy enough to afford private colleges and universities. Kansas University, Kansas State, and the other state universities exist because the majority of Kansans cannot afford to send their children to places like Harvard or Yale or Stanford.
The state universities are no more elitist than our national military academies. They exist because generations of Americans and Kansans have understood that places of higher education train our citizens to perform needed tasks and enrich their lives in multiple ways. A university education is transformative. It changes lives, usually for the better. The whole point of a public university is to open the doors of higher education to people of modest means. When we damage public universities we diminish educational opportunities for the majority of people in the state. Far from being elitist, universities permit those of humble origins to fulfill their dreams.
Similarly, it is a terrible misunderstanding of the people who work and study at our public universities to think that they are elitist. Many, if not most of the faculty and staff at KU come from humble backgrounds. I have met few faculty or staff members at KU who come from wealthy or socially prominent families.
The students who come to KU fit a similar profile. The vast majority of our students are not the children of wealthy parents sent to university for four years of leisure and play. They are hard-working folks here to get an education and to better their lives and the lives of their families. Many, if not most, hold down jobs as well as attend classes. For many, attendance at university requires financial and personal sacrifice. They are not elitist. They are just people who want to learn.
I think that it is time that legislators recognize that the state universities are not elitist private institutions designed to perpetuate the advantages possessed by the “1 percent.” Quite the contrary is true. The Kansas Board of Regents universities are institutions designed to make the lives of Kansans better through education, through research, and through service. Their mission is to serve the people of Kansas and those who work in them do so because they want to serve the people of Kansas and have continued to work in them in spite of budget cutbacks, few salary increases, and the misplaced scorn of those who would label them elitist.