Editorial: Lawrence leaders need to become involved in shaping KU’s future

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

It came about a week after Halloween, but a comment from University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod still was the type that could put a scare into local leaders.

“A future KU may be a smaller KU, but a stronger KU,” Girod said earlier this month at a kickoff event for KU’s new strategic planning process.

The fear in local circles should be that KU only delivers on half that statement. It is hard to see how a smaller KU is going to be a good deal for the Lawrence community in very many circumstances.

Lawrence sometimes overthinks its economic development strategy. Yes, the community’s strategy should have several facets to it, but serving students is clearly the foundation of our economic success. The most straightforward way to boost the Lawrence economy is to grow the enrollment at KU’s Lawrence campus. Most students at KU don’t come from Douglas County. As such, they bring new money into our economy from other parts of the state, the country and the world.

It is fair to wonder if local governments ought to spend some of their economic development funds on efforts aimed directly at increasing the enrollment at the Lawrence campus. How that would work is unclear, in part, because there hasn’t been any serious discussion of it.

What is clear is that KU could use some help in growing its Lawrence enrollment. KU’s Lawrence enrollment is turning into a legitimate economic concern for the community. Since 2010, the university’s Lawrence campus enrollment has dropped by about 1,500 students.

Here are some dollar estimates we can attach to that decline. According to university statistics, about 60% of students are residents of Kansas, while 40% are from outside the state. In-state students pay just under $23,000 a year in tuition and other fees. Because of higher tuition rates, out-of-state students pay just under $41,000. Add it all up and the loss of 1,500 students amounts to a loss of about $45 million in direct student spending every year. The true direct number is likely higher because the KU cost figures don’t do much to factor in the true amount of entertainment dollars students spend in the community. Even so, $45 million a year is about a half-billion dollars sucked out of the Lawrence economy over the course of a decade.

If you consider indirect effects, the number would be much higher. It would cause the abacus to smoke too much to do those calculations, but the effects are real. A good portion of that $45 million a year would go to pay salaries of local residents, which they in turn would use to buy their own goods and services. When you wonder why wages aren’t as high as you think they ought to be in Lawrence, remember these numbers. When you think Lawrence isn’t as prosperous as it should be, recall these figures.

So, Chancellor Girod shouldn’t be offended if Lawrence leaders don’t get overly enthused about the idea of a smaller KU.

A stronger KU, certainly, would be welcome. Girod didn’t articulate what he meant by a stronger KU. Presumably, the new strategic plan will chart that course. There is reason to be concerned in Lawrence about what that course will be. Given Girod’s history, it is fair to wonder whether Girod’s vision is to make KU much more Kansas City-centric than it is today. Girod is the former executive vice chancellor of the KU Medical Center. Making KU more KC-centric has some strategic merits. The Medical Center certainly has more positive momentum than the rest of the university. But if Girod is content with building upon that success, Lawrence will suffer.

Hopefully, the chancellor has a broader vision for KU. Many in the university community have been clamoring for it since his tenure began in 2017. Lawrence community leaders also would be wise to not only clamor for it, but become involved in shaping it. The city, the county and the chamber of commerce each should have staff members assigned to participate in KU’s strategic plan.

When cracks start to show up in your foundation, it is never wise to hope they’ll fix themselves.

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