Editorial: Budget priorities

The top funding priorities of Kansas’ six state universities represent practical efforts that will directly benefit the state.

To their credit, chief executives at Kansas’ six state universities haven’t given up on big ideas.

That was apparent earlier this week as the Kansas Board of Regents reviewed budget requests from the universities it oversees. University leaders are working hard not only to maintain the current quality of their schools but also to build on existing areas of excellence.

In many cases, their top funding priorities are directly in line with state officials’ desire to meet specific state needs and connect academic research to business opportunities.

Kansas University’s top two priorities illustrate the challenges the university faces as it seeks to build key programs while also dealing with reduced state funding. First, KU is seeking to add $5 million per year to its budget to fund a Drug and Vaccine Discovery Institute. The proposal, which regents greeted enthusiastically, ties in perfectly with the university’s world-class pharmaceutical development programs. The institute’s work in developing vaccines not only would provide broad health benefits but also would fuel Kansas investment by pharmaceutical firms.

KU’s other top priority — $3.4 million to provide a 3 percent merit-based pay rase for faculty and staff at the KU Medical Center — represents the university’s critical need to shore up its basic operations. After years of meager funding for salary increases, KU is struggling to attract and retain top faculty members. Dr. Doug Girod, executive vice chancellor at the medical center, told the regents that, too often, KUMC hires and trains good people only to see them move on to other jobs with higher salaries. It’s good that KU is giving this funding a high priority, but it’s too bad that keeping salaries at a competitive level has to be presented as a “special” request. It should be a given.

Kansas State University also is thinking big with a $150 million proposal for a new food research facility to complement the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility being developed at K-State. Wichita State wants $16.7 million for doctoral research fellowships and a new innovation center. To help meet the state’s growing medical needs, Emporia State is seeking $500,000 for its Newman Division of Nursing, and Pittsburg State University is seeking $2 million to expand its health-related programs. Fort Hays State is seeking $15 million to facilitate its merger with Dodge City Community College, which responds to legislators’ desires to streamline higher education and make it more efficient.

There’s a lot for the governor and state legislators to like in the university requests. They are proposals that build the prestige of the state’s universities while also making solid connections to the Kansas economy. Looking at these requests, it’s easy to see how directly higher education benefits the state. Hopefully, state officials will make that connection and make the universities’ top funding priorities a top priority for the state.