Saturday Column: Changing state universities need better oversight

Kansas’ fiscal health is not good. Tax revenues are down substantially from projected totals, and, consequently, most every state-funded or state-aided program is facing major cuts.

Various reasons are offered for this situation, such as Gov. Sam Brownback’s income tax policies and his refusal to modify his tax philosophy; the national economy; Kansas’ vulnerability due to its reliance on agriculture and mineral-generated taxes and other negatives.

Putting this debate aside, the current situation is what it is, and Kansas and its residents have to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation or decide what actions to take to reduce the chances of this situation continuing year after year.

Education takes a huge bite out of state tax revenues. News stories earlier this week reported revenue coming into state coffers in February fell $53.6 million short of expectations, creating a budget deficit that will result in painful budget cuts in state operations. The same day, Brownback announced a $17 million cut to state university budgets. Kansas University officials said the action would reduce the KU budget by $7.18 million.

Not much can be done about this at this time, and KU officials face the challenge of figuring out how to absorb the loss of more than $7 million from an already-tight budget and still maintain the excellence of the overall university program.

The fact is, the operation and funding of the Kansas Board of Regents universities is out of date and needs an almost total overhaul.

The Board of Administration, a forerunner of the Board of Regents, was established in 1913, and the structure and duties of the board have been modified a number of times since. In the early years, almost the entire operating budget of the state universities came from the state. Today, state support is between 15 percent and 20 percent of those budgets, dropping most every year. The rest of the universities’ money comes from tuition, federal funds and grants and private fiscal support.

The state pays only a small fraction of the costs, but, through the Board of Regents, which the governor appoints, and the actions of the Legislature, the state, in one way or another, controls the universities.

Something is out of whack!

Perhaps it is time, or far past time, to reinvent the Board of Regents and make its role more relevant to today’s reality. Or maybe a more up-to-date and functional new body should replace the board.

As it is, today’s regents do not have a good idea of what is going on at the multiple institutions they oversee. They are spoon-fed information by their staff, and their official visits to the campuses are carefully controlled and orchestrated by university officials.

The size and complexity of state universities have changed tremendously since the Board of Regents was created. The changes in higher education have been massive, but the Board of Regents hasn’t changed.

Granted, there have been some relatively minor touch-ups, but not enough to make the regents up-to-date, effective and knowledgeable administrators of our state universities.

New technology is changing higher education, and it seems serious downsizing of some aspects of a college education should be studied. Isn’t it time to consider what might be done to give Kansas the best chance to have its state universities measure up to the demands and opportunities of today and tomorrow?

Someone — whether it is the governor, a state legislator, a regent, a concerned private citizen or some public body — would be doing a badly needed public service by proposing a blue ribbon committee to initiate a deep and thorough study of the Kansas system of higher education.

It cannot grow and excel in its current fiscal year-to-year lifeline operation. Where is the proper level of funding to come from, and where should the leadership come from: the Board of Regents, a new and remodeled board or some other office or individual?

The current system is not working as well as it should.