State funding, inefficiencies at KU among challenges discussed at higher ed panel

photo by: Contributed photo

Kansas University's new Cessna Citation CJ4 business jet. The plane was delivered to KU Dec. 23, 2014, and replaces the university's Cessna Citation Bravo, which KU had been using 17 years.

Access and affordability of higher education was the overarching topic of a panel discussion Tuesday at the University of Kansas hosted by the student advocacy group KU Against Rising Tuition.

In a wide-ranging talk that lasted more than two hours, panelists discussed KU’s at times strained relationship with the state Legislature, claims of bloated administration and other inefficiencies within the university, and the many barriers to higher education faced by today’s young people.

One of the first questions posed to panelists by KUART president Lev Comolli concerned whether or not Kansas high schools are adequately preparing students for college.

According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, 85 percent of Kansas students graduated high school in 2011, said longtime Kansas Board of Education member Janet Waugh. Of that 85 percent, 52 percent enrolled in some sort of post-secondary educational program. Only 44 percent, Waugh said, ended up with a degree or license.

“But guess what? That’s not near good enough, because we have determined that Kansas needs a 95 percent graduation rate. We have 85 percent,” Waugh said. “We need a 70 to 75 percent effective rate — those are the ones that finish up (their post-secondary schooling). The effective rate for 2011 was 44. So, as you can see, we’ve got a long way to go in order to provide employees for these jobs in the state of Kansas.”

Waugh was joined that evening at the Kansas Union by panelists Ann Brandau-Murguia, of the Kansas Board of Regents, KU aerospace engineering professor Ron Barrett-Gonzalez and Kansas state representative Dennis “Boog” Highberger.

In light of dramatic cuts in recent years to education funding statewide, Comolli asked, are KU representatives lobbying hard enough in the Legislature on behalf of the university?

Highberger said KU lobbyists are facing “an uphill battle” in Topeka, where he said there’s a “strong anti-intellectual atmosphere,” with a bias against KU and Lawrence especially. Still, he said, more work needs to be done in publicizing KU as a driver for economic growth across the state — not just in Lawrence’s blue bubble.

“I think a lot of people, including people I serve with, what they see at the university is that the kids go away (to college), they get crazy ideas and they don’t come home (to Kansas communities),” Highberger said. “And if that’s all the university is doing for them, they’re not going to be supportive.”

“So, I think the university with their lobbying needs to make clear all the benefits KU provides, like sending doctors and nurses and teachers to their towns, among other things,” he added.

One discussion topic that was advertised heavily beforehand was a recent University Governance report that proposed KU sell its private jet. Barrett-Gonzalez, who helped write and submit the report to the University Senate in April, said selling the jet and reorganizing KU’s aircraft fleet (upgrading propeller-driven Cessna planes the university already owns) would lead to a recurring savings of approximately $1 million per year.

“The average distance that this jet has flown — we looked at every single flight — is around 200 miles. And about a third of the flights only carried one or two people,” Barrett-Gonzalez said. “Now, many people will say, ‘Oh, it’s for the Med Center,’ but no, the majority of the flights — two-thirds of the flights — are for KU Athletics.”

Barrett-Gonzalez also said that the jet, because it’s a low-loading vehicle, costs roughly 10 times more per passenger mile than what is advertised by Cessna.

“So, from a rank-and-file faculty perspective, I’m looking at the jet and I’m looking at 118 administrators in Strong Hall who are all making $200K or more, and I’m thinking, ‘Maybe there’s a little waste going on here at KU,'” he added.

Barrett-Gonzalez said, to his knowledge, University Governance has yet to receive a response from KU leadership on the proposal.

Brandau-Murguia, echoing remarks made by Waugh, said she will continue to push for more accessible and affordable higher education in Kansas. However, she said, the Board of Regents merely votes to approve tuition increases or decreases, or lack thereof, among Regents schools. Funding decisions, she reminded the crowd, come from the Legislature.

It’s up to constituents — including today’s students — to be agents of change, Brandau-Murguia said.

“If education and the opportunity for an education and the affordability of an education is important to you, then you need to stick to that, you need to focus on that and you need to talk to those people who are running for office,” she said. “Or you, yourself, need to run for office, and you need to be a voice for that cause. And you need to stay very focused on that.”