Democratic leader says Brownback wants Gray-Little gone; governor’s office says he does not

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said Friday that Gov. Sam Brownback is trying to pressure Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little out of her position. Brownback’s office denied the allegation, as did the chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents.

“It is the role of the Kansas Board of Regents to evaluate the performance of university leadership. Neither the Governor or anyone on his behalf are working to remove the chancellor,” said Sara Belfry, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Hensley said he has heard from people “involved” with the Kansas Board of Regents who have told him the Brownback administration is upset with Gray-Little. He declined to identify whom he spoke with.

“I don’t know if the makeup of the regents right now is such that this would materialize, but I think in time as the regents change it is entirely possible that under this administration that they would try to make a move to remove her from that job,” Hensley said.

The nine-member Kansas Board of Regents oversees and coordinates the higher education system in Kansas and is in charge of hiring the chief executive officers of the six regents universities. Board members are appointed by the governor to four-year terms.

Regents Chairman Fred Logan called Hensley’s assertions “absolute hooey.”

Logan added, “I have talked to the governor about the chancellor, and he holds her in very high regard and has the utmost respect for the job that she has done. He likes Bernadette Gray-Little a lot and so there is just not even a shred of truth to that statement.”

Logan, who is one of six Brownback appointees to the board, added, “The Board of Regents holds her in extremely high regard.”

Gray-Little said she was confident she has the full backing of Brownback.

“I have met with Gov. Brownback many times. He has always been cordial and always supportive of the aspirations of the University of Kansas. We will continue to work together to improve higher education in the state,” she said.

Some conservative Republicans in the Legislature have criticized the management of KU over budget issues, and some have criticized KU for not firing journalism professor David Guth over a tweet he posted last year that harshly denounced the National Rifle Association.

Next week, legislative committees will work on the budgets of regents institutions, including KU.

“When all is said and done next week, on the Senate side, I think we’re going to see the University of Kansas take a big hit,” said state Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, who has tried to defend KU’s budget proposals.

State Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, declined to provide any advance details on how his education subcommittee would treat higher education. The subcommittee meets Tuesday.

Last year, Brownback signed into law cuts to higher education that totaled $13.5 million to KU.

This year, he has proposed restoring some of those cuts.

Earlier this week, Arpke told KU officials he was disappointed in the school’s graduation rate and that he wanted them to respond to a 2009 state audit that said universities could reduce costs by decreasing faculty, eliminating low-enrollment classes and consolidating departments.

And last week, KU suffered a setback before a House committee that rejected its bid for bonding authority to build an apartment building for basketball players and other students. The $17.5 million in bonds would have been paid back with private funds and revenue from the building. Later, KU officials withdrew the request.