Highberger meets with KU leaders about students’ concerns; not ready to back bills to change KU policy

photo by: Peter Hancock

In this file photo from February 2016, Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, speaks at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

State Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger is not currently willing to sponsor three bills drafted by a student group from the University of Kansas regarding greater transparency in higher education, but said he will introduce them to the Legislature on behalf of the students.

“This is something I do for any constituent,” he said.

Highberger, D-Lawrence, said he is concerned the bills might offer an opportunity for some legislators — who are hostile to higher education and KU in particular — to bash the university. But he also said he is “committed to not doing anything that would play into their hands” and that his constituents have a right to be heard.

“If I thought there was a real danger of these bills harming the university, I would not introduce them on behalf of the students,” he said.

Highberger also said he would connect the student group to someone in the Office of Revisor of Statutes who will help the students better draft the bills.

“They still need some work,” he said.

After being contacted by the KU group Students Against Rising Tuition, who drafted the bills with help from aerospace engineering professor Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, Highberger met with two members of the University of Kansas administration. He said he met with Julie Murray, chief of staff in the Office of the Chancellor, and Kelly Whitten, director of state relations, on Dec. 19 for about 30 to 45 minutes.

Highberger said his take on Murray’s and Whitten’s response was that the university is already addressing the issues presented in the bills.

One bill takes aim at KU’s private jet; another would require public universities to gradually restore salaries for longtime employees who have taken pay cuts since 2009; and the last would require all public universities to publicly disclose large construction projects that cost more than $2 million over a period of five years.

Highberger said he “can’t say whether I’d support any of the bills right now, but I do share some of the concerns they raise.” He specifically noted the issue of “salary compression and inversion” — when recently hired employees make similar amounts of money as longtime employees who have not had their pay restored after budget cuts.

Highberger said Murray and Whitten were aware of the salary issue, but not to the extent that KU Against Rising Tuition had described to him. He said he encouraged the group to send its data on the topic to the two administrators.

Regarding the university’s jet, Highberger said: “I think they are aware of the issue and I think they are taking some steps to mitigate the problem.”

In response to the bill about transparency in large construction projects, Highberger said he was told the Kansas Board of Regents already has a policy in place that’s more restrictive than the one the students drafted.

The Kansas Board of Regents did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Finally, Highberger mentioned that he discussed the UKanTeach program with Murray and Whitten, because it had been mentioned to him by a number of his constituents. In September, KU announced it would be shutting down the UKanTeach program, which allowed students to receive a STEM bachelor’s degree (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) alongside a teaching license in mathematics, biology, chemistry, earth and space science or physics.

The program helped provide secondary schools in Kansas with much-needed math and science teachers.

Highberger said he was “assured that the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the education school are working on a way to provide a similar program.”

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