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Stakes high as Kansas legislators take look at funding for higher education

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, July 27, 2013, at 5:25 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, at 11:11 p.m.

The “family fight” over how much tax money to spend on Kansas higher education might now be headed for negotiation.

But those talks will start far apart, interviews with legislators and leaders at Wichita State University show.

Both sides say that what’s at stake is the not just the future of state universities.

Both say it is about whether Kansas will become a better place to live.

Several legislators who were key in cutting university budgets this year are from Wichita, or in the case of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, from Newton.

They say they are not mere spending scolds.

“We do get it about the universities and education,” said Gene Suellentrop, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He said he’s toured the National Institute for Aviation Research’s new facility at the old Coliseum, has family and business roots in Wichita and knows how vital WSU research is to the state economy.

But he and other legislators – Rhoades, Senate president Susan Wagle and Reps. Mark Hutton and Steve Brunk, both of Wichita – laid out several concerns.

Attention-getting salaries

University leaders make a lot of money. House Speaker Ray Merrick has publicly questioned what taxpayers get in return for paying “six-figure salaries.”

WSU president John Bardo earns $345,000 a year, $68,769 from private money.

WSU’s new vice president for academic affairs, Tony Vizzini, earns $270,000.

Bernadette Gray-Little, chancellor at the University of Kansas, earns $492,650 ($220,664 from private money), according to the Board of Regents

The size of those salaries got the attention of legislators.

Brunk, who has supported WSU in other money disputes in the Legislature, voted for the higher education cuts this spring. But he began to worry after WSU and KU warned the cuts might hurt job growth.

Then the Kansas City Star reported that the Board of Regents had given the KU chancellor a $60,000 raise and the Kansas State University president a $60,000 raise (Bardo said he also got a raise, $15,000).

“And I stopped feeling bad,” Brunk said.

Regents spokeswoman Mary Jane Stankiewicz has said the salaries are understandable given that university leaders run institutions that spend hundreds of millions of dollars.

And Bardo said that if Kansans really want good research scientists and engineering professors, universities need to pay for that.

“I can’t imagine running a business where you need to hire design engineers to design bridges and then say … ‘I’m not going to pay market salaries. I’ll hire only people who want to work for less,’” he said.

“I don’t think I’d want to drive across that bridge.”

Hutton said he isn’t that bothered about high salaries but says people getting paid with tax dollars should be accountable.

“We’d ask questions during the appropriations process,” he said. “What we got in reply sounded like crickets chirping.

“It was always, ‘If you want better outcomes, you’ve got to give us more money,’” he said. “To business people, who are used to saving money and cutting overhead, that’s just counterintuitive.”

Rhoades agreed.

“I am passionate about this,” he said in an e-mail. “But I know those who are institution-focused are not malicious, they’re just locked into this paradigm that universities must always get bigger and more expensive to keep up with other universities getting bigger and more expensive – and it’s students who pay the price.

“A constructive conversation would focus on the needs and best interest of individuals rather than those of institutions.”

Bardo said he would try to do a better job of talking with legislators.

Suellentrop said he is still irritated that Gray-Little said publicly during the spring that budget cutting might mean KU would reduce the KU medical school in Wichita and eliminate the school in Salina. He regarded that as an attempt at intimidation.

Asked about what Suellentrop said, Gray-Little did not respond.

“If she thinks doing her job is so tough, and if she doesn’t think earning half a million dollars is enough to do her job, well – it’s a free market,” he said. “We’ll take applications for her job. I bet we get some good ones.”

Work habits

Wagle has come to WSU’s defense, saying the salary cap and the budget cuts imposed in the latest session need to be reviewed. She said legislators should appoint an interim committee to visit universities and work out differences.

University people called after the session to warn that years of cuts have left them worried about providing quality education. She takes those worries seriously, she said.

But some Wichitans also called her to complain about what some of those high-salaried educators are doing, or not doing, with their time.

“I have heard from parents and heard from students who borrow a lot of money go to WSU who complain about associate deans and teachers who make six-figure salaries who you can’t ever find in their offices,” she said. Hutton said he’d heard the same.

Bardo doesn’t think that is true or fair. No university wants professors or research scientists who clock in and sit in a specified chair all day.

They need to be available to help students, he said. But he was one of them for years and said he worked not only at his offices but at home, usually until midnight, every day.

Wise spending urged

One criticism lawmakers have faced, including from Democrats like Jill Docking and Joan Wagnon, is that the budget cutting would not have been necessary had Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican majority in the Legislature not cut the state income tax.

They did that to try “to make this state as attractive as possible to companies thinking about moving here,” Suellentrop said.

They did it to create jobs, Wagle and Hutton said.

Docking, a former member of the Kansas Board of Regents, has said it won’t work.

“Show me one single state with an economic landscape similar to Kansas in which this has worked,” she said.

“We understand we have a philosophical difference of opinion about how to help the economy,” Suellentrop said. But he and the others are sure the plan will produce jobs and prosperity, given time.

He said lawmakers have an obligation to ask university chiefs to spend wisely and to ask how they are spending. When they did that in the session, he said, they got a lack of cooperation and then a backlash that included university chiefs increasing tuition – about 8 percent at WSU – and blaming the Legislature.

“Let’s say we restore the money we cut,” Suellentrop said. “Will the universities then roll back tuition?”

Maybe, Bardo said. Not this year, because it is too late.

“But it might impact what tuition I ask for for next year,” he said. “If I knew I was going to have that in hand and that there wouldn’t be more cuts, it would clearly have an impact.”

Training at stake

On the other side are people like Andy Schlapp, WSU’s lobbyist government relations representative, who points out that state support for universities was around 75 percent of total university budgets in the 1970s and has dropped to about 22 percent now.

“It seems kind of hard, looking at that, to make the argument that we’re a bunch of out-of-control free spenders here,” Schlapp said.

When Bardo warned a few weeks ago that continued cuts to WSU might harm local industries, he was speaking not just as a university president but as a person concerned about the economy, Schlapp said.

Many Kansans, he said, still subscribe to the notion that Kansas is an agricultural state or an agriculture and oil and gas state.

“But we haven’t been primarily either one of those things for many years,” he said. “We are by far and away a manufacturing state.”

Numbers available from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis bear this out. In 2012, Kansas agriculture produced more than $5.4 billion; oil and gas, $1.6 billion; and manufacturing, $20.5 billion.

Much manufacturing output came from aviation companies stocked with engineers and supported by researchers and laboratories at WSU, Schlapp said.

When Schlapp and Bardo talk to groups about WSU’s support of manufacturing, they quote the state’s Department of Commerce’s website, which Schlapp points out is a testimonial to the value of investing heavily in engineers:

Spirit AeroSystems of Wichita is the No. 1 employer in Kansas (10,800 employees); Cessna Aircraft Co. is third (5,000); Bombardier is 13th (2,500); and Beechcraft Corp. is 22nd with 1,500. Koch Industries, where Charles Koch says he likes to hire from Kansas universities, is 10th with 3,000.

It doesn’t make business sense to cut back on university training of engineers, Schlapp said. He knows Rhoades understands that.

Two years ago, the Legislature voted to give $3.5 million every year for 10 years to WSU, KU and K-State. It was called the Engineer Initiative.

“But the key guy who made that happen for WSU was Marc Rhoades,” Schlapp said. “Without Marc, it would not have happened. He’s been a friend to WSU.”

Rhoades, in an e-mail, described what he said happened: Officials from one of the other state universities wanted to meet with him. And they wanted him arrange it so they got $10 million of the state money up front, without any money at that time for WSU or other universities. Rhoades wrote that he told the other university that he wouldn’t meet unless WSU was at the table and given an equal amount in any agreement.

Schlapp has been puzzled by why Rhoades has so strenuously criticized universities this year. But he went golfing with Rhoades in Newton a few days ago. He said Rhoades is the better golfer.

“We had a nice chat,” Schlapp said. “I mentioned I had some numbers I’d like to show him.

“He said he’d love to see them.”

Contributing: Dan Voorhis of The Eagle

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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