Topeka Kansas University, and the Lawrence community generally, have often had an odd and sometimes difficult relationship with the rest of the state.
Many who are from KU proudly refer to it as “Athens on the Kaw.” Elsewhere in Kansas, “Snob Hill” is the more common nickname.
But in recent years, some people say those kinds of barbs and jeers have grown into something larger, especially within the Kansas Statehouse, resulting in policy decisions and funding cuts that KU officials fear could have a lasting impact.
Last week, for example, a Senate committee deleted funding the university had sought to help finance a new education building at the KU Medical Center, something KU officials warned could threaten the school's accreditation. But Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, replied that he simply didn't buy that argument.
“I don’t feel the accreditation is in jeopardy,” Masterson said. “If it were, we could reconsider what we need to reconsider.”
And a budget subcommittee led by Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, recently deleted $2 million earmarked to help KU work with pharmaceutical companies to commercialize new drugs and medical technologies. Arpke said he believed KU's budget should have been cut even more in recent years due to declining enrollment.
Source of animosity
There are several theories about the source of the cultural and political chasm separating KU and the rest of the state.
Some look as far back as the antiwar protests on the campus in 1970 and the burning of the Student Union. Others point to the obvious political differences: Lawrence and Douglas County lean decidedly liberal while the state as a whole is reliably conservative.
In 2003, for example, when the city of Lawrence debated enacting a “living wage” requirement for companies that receive local tax breaks, Rep. Mike Kiegerl, a conservative Republican from Olathe, quipped during a committee meeting: “Why should we not allow Lawrence to hurt its local economy? We all know that Marxism is alive and well only in academia.”
State Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said many legislators "think we are very, very liberal. I think we are liberal in that we educate people in such a way that they can think for themselves."
State Rep. Tom Sloan, one of the few Lawrence Republicans who holds elected office, said he thinks other Kansans are envious of Lawrence "because Lawrence has what most communities want: a vibrant education community, a good economic system, social opportunities."
But Mike O'Neal, a former Republican House Speaker from Hutchinson who is a KU alumnus and an avid supporter of the university, said he thinks KU is largely the source of its own political problems. O'Neal thinks KU has damaged its own credibility in the way it lobbies the Legislature.
“One example of that,” O'Neal said, is that “the university wants to increase salaries; that budget request is turned down; and as a consequence the university finds a way to increase salaries from other sources.
"And that I know was a source of irritation to members of the Legislature, that the university was going to do whatever the university was going to do anyway, with or without the Legislature. So why should the Legislature have a role in always responding to these budget requests from the university?”
More generally, though, O'Neal said, KU has been slow to realize a political reality that other Regents institutions accepted long ago: “the changing political environment and budgetary environment that we're in.”
“Unlike K-12, the state in terms of its relationship with higher ed is not the sole source of funding anymore,” he said. “The mindset of the Legislature right now is, with limited resources, what is the state's role in higher ed in terms of the funding it does provide? And, as to the percentage of funding it does provide to higher education overall, what is the return on investment?”
In other words, O'Neal said, it is no longer enough to say that higher education is generally good for society. Universities have many other sources of funding – private donations, federal grants, corporate donations – to pursue lofty goals, while legislators want state taxpayer dollars to go for specific things that produce a tangible benefit back to the state.
KU spokesman Tim Caboni said that message is not lost on the university. But he rejected the notion that KU's relationship with the Legislature has turned sour.
“The votes may not always go in our favor,” he said, “but when you walk around the Statehouse with the chancellor, you can see she has remarkable relationships with legislative leaders.”
He also said KU has been more selective in its budget requests, seeking things it believes will produce tangible benefits to Kansas, such as the medical school building and the $2 million for commercializing pharmaceutical research.
And he remains hopeful the Legislature eventually will agree to fund those projects.
But Caboni said KU also still believes in the less-measurable benefits of having an “educated citizenry,” benefits that stretch to the economy and society as a whole.