State’s role in funding Kansas universities debated

The state Legislature changed Wichita State University from a regional liberal arts school into a research university starting a couple of decades ago, John Bardo says.

Focusing on engineering and research was a smart idea that created jobs and gave aviation companies another reason to stay here, says Bardo, WSU’s president. But research universities cost more. Engineering professors command good pay worldwide and need expensive laboratories, he says.

He wonders if legislators get that. After budget cuts and salary restrictions, he worries whether WSU will be able to keep up as a research university.

What’s at issue could be jobs for the region, he says.

But lawmakers who cut university budgets last month say what’s at issue is affordable, quality education for Kansas students. They point out that universities immediately increased tuition enough — in most cases — to cover or exceed the cuts.

It “isn't about a 1.5 percent reduction or a 1.5 increase. It's about shifting the discussion/paradigm from being institution-needs driven to student-needs driven. It's a gap that's widening at an unsustainable rate,” says House appropriations chairman Marc Rhoades of Newton.

He and other lawmakers question spiraling tuition rates, high pay for college executives and professors and whether professors teach enough.

Everyone including students, parents, taxpayers and university professors has a stake in this.

And Wichita aviation companies — courted and lobbied to stay in Kansas by the Legislature over many years — are watching closely.

“This topic is extremely important to the ongoing competitiveness of Spirit and the entire aviation cluster here in Wichita,” said Ken Evans, a spokesman for Spirit AeroSystems Inc.

Growth of research

Lawmakers cut general university funding 1.5 percent in each of the next two years and also cut state funding of university salaries.

If cuts continue, Bardo said, jobs, economic growth and even the tax revenue the Legislature needs to pay the state’s bills might be diminished.

During Bardo’s first stint at WSU, as a $12,000-a-year sociology professor from 1973 to 1983, WSU’s spending on research was negligible, he said.

But eventually, the Legislature told WSU to become a research outfit.

“It was an important decision for the state of Kansas,” Bardo said. “It wasn’t just a willy-nilly-random-gosh-wouldn’t-that-be-a-good thing. It actually had huge ramifications for the future of the metropolitan area.”

One out of five of WSU’s 2,803 graduate students is an engineering scholar, learning from Ph.D. engineers while working hands-on with aerospace companies. Over the years, as the reputation of WSU’s engineering college grew, the research those Ph.D.s did attracted millions in federal grants and industry investment to Wichita. And hundreds of international students, including those from Malaysia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, came here to learn.

In 2003, WSU spent $14.9 million on research. Last year, it was $47 million. That effort, he said, has paid off for the state, creating jobs, keeping aviation companies here.

This happened, Bardo said, in spite of cutbacks in state aid. The state contribution to WSU’s budget was $65,903,685 in real dollars in 2002. It was $65,106,592 in real dollars in 2012, he said, pointing out WSU has faced increases in the cost of doing business over that decade.

“To hire an engineering professor, we have to offer them a competitive salary,” he said. “It’s not a matter of: ‘we’re being really nice to you.’ This is not about being nice.”

A recently as 2011, Gov. Sam Brownback proposed, and the Legislature approved, money to help state research universities reach into the state’s K-12 schools and entice young people to become engineers.

The reason the state did that, said then-Senate Majority Leader Steve Morris at the time, was that managers at engineer-heavy aerospace companies in Wichita and companies like Black & Veatch in the Kansas City area were telling lawmakers they couldn’t find enough engineers. Lawmakers were concerned that these companies, so important to the state’s tax base and job market, might leave Kansas for another state where they could hire the engineers they need.

Bardo said legislators “need to decide what kind of state they want. Can we make (a college education) less expensive? Absolutely. But I don’t think you’re going to like what you get.”

Tuition increases

Rhoades, the House appropriations chairman, did not answer e-mailed questions about Bardo’s assertion that university cuts might eventually cost Kansas jobs.

Instead, he laid out a number of concerns about spending and tuition increases at the universities.

He and House Speaker Ray Merrick of Johnson County, say they and other legislators are trying not only to manage Kansas finances in difficult times but give a break to Kansas families. The 8 percent tuition increase approved for WSU earlier this month will hurt families, some lawmakers have said.

"The fundamental issue is a huge disconnect between the hopes and dreams of universities versus those of students attending to get a degree,” Rhoades wrote in an e-mail to The Eagle. “Increased tuition 2002 to 2013 was 146 percent, not counting the most recent increases up to 8 percent; inflation over that time was 30 percent. A dichotomy of priorities between schools and students is what's at the heart of this discussion.”

To university claims that their expenses have gone up, from increased health care costs and inflation, Rhoades said the same is true for families. “When the public is told funding to state schools will keep tuition down, they want to believe it, but here’s the crux of the problem: There is no correlation. Then they hear more money is needed to defray increased costs of healthcare for people making six figures; it’s discouraging,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Merrick said late last month that universities aren't helping their own cause. "I'd like to have the professors be in the classrooms and be teaching students instead of doing all the other stuff they’re doing," he said.

"It's a free market out there," he said, regarding pay increases for certain professors and administrators. "If they want to leave, they leave and somebody else is going to take their place," he said. "To say that we need to compete with everybody else, I don't buy that."

‘Avoid being shortsighted’

But hold on, said analyst Richard Aboulafia.

Aboulafia is an aviation industry analyst who sometimes bluntly criticizes aviation companies. He is quoted frequently as an observer and consultant by national news outlets.

What Merrick and Rhoades said about high pay for researchers, he said, is like what Soviet bureaucrats used to say about fair pay. “Comrades, we must cut your pay, because engineers should be paid the same as tractor repairmen,” Aboulafia said.

He said legislators could cut pay for aerospace professors if they want, but it would imperil industries of their state.

Aboulafia said he can’t think of a state where politicians are “choosing to inflict wounds like that.”

Former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiarht, who worked for Boeing for 16 years before he entered Congress, said legislators “should avoid being shortsighted” about the value of those engineers at WSU.

“They really do create a lot of economic boost,” he said.

Heavy price

Thirty other states increased funding for universities in the last year, national officials said.

Julie Bell, the education group director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said many state legislatures have had plenty of criticisms about universities “drifting off mission” in the past and not targeting education to the modern workforce.

But most of them do believe there is “absolutely” a link between the success of state economies and research universities, she said.

And Daniel Hurley, the director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said that in the national picture of funding, “Kansas is clearly the outlier nationally with regard to continued disinvestment in higher education.”

He said Kansas could pay a heavy price.

“In my view it is terribly shortsighted,” Hurley said. “The citizens and employers in the state should be up in arms. What employer would want to move to or expand in a state where the legislature makes it clear that college access and building a skilled workforce is not a priority?”

“Employers value having a skilled workforce a lot more than slightly lower tax rates,” he said.

Governor’s opinion

Gov. Sam Brownback has said repeatedly that he disagrees with the cuts and that universities and lawmakers need to work together to create a shared vision for higher education.

"I thought we should have had stable funding," he said. "I'm going to continue to fight for that into the future. But the power of the Legislature is the power of the purse."

But Rhoades said the cuts this year were negligible. When asked about the benefits of research institutions, he pointed out that parents and students might have a different view of what they need in a university classrooom.

“When universities say they can’t fill Ph.D positions because they don’t have enough money, one wonders how criteria in their world compare with that of parents and students whose list for instructors might include: 1) Comes to class in person; 2) Understands and conveys the subject in a clear and relevant way; 3) Posts grades in a fair and timely fashion.”

“Taxpayers will never be able to keep up with state universities’ wish lists as long as schools remain institution-focused over treating students as customers to be served and not tuition as a means to an end. Are other states doing the same thing? Yes. Does that make it right? No.”

Contributing: Brent Wistrom of The Eagle.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle