Behind higher ed?

As if reflecting the high ideals of higher education, the Kansas Board of Regents traditionally avoids the dysfunction and controversy associated with other governing bodies in the state. So during a busy week that also saw the release of tuition-hike proposals, it was jarring to see chairman Gary Sherrer abruptly resign at a regents meeting, pointing to an “atmosphere of mutual disrespect” regarding his leadership.

“I believe regents have a responsibility to aggressively seek and implement changes required to provide a competitive, high-quality 21st-century system of higher education,” Sherrer said in a statement. “Some board members have opposed this philosophy and prefer a more laissez-faire approach to governance.”

His time as a regent was about up anyway, and he’s never been one to hold his tongue. But this was more than a fit of pique by Sherrer, who spearheaded a bold reform of higher education when he was the state’s longest-serving lieutenant governor (1996-2003).

He had a point to make, one important to consider as Kansas stages an economic comeback.

Reached by The Eagle editorial board the day after his exit, Sherrer expressed deep concern about the shrinking state support for regents institutions and, as a result, the rising cost of tuition and deepening debt faced by students and families.

“We’re pricing some very capable and deserving young men and women right out of education,” Sherrer said, also mentioning the adults who defer or cancel plans to go back to school because they can’t afford it.

If approved, the tuition hikes proposed to the regents last week will only put more pressure on wannabe students, ranging from 4 percent at Kansas State University and Fort Hays State University to 6 percent at Wichita State University to a top hike of 7.4 percent for out-of-state students at the University of Kansas. And Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget director, Steve Anderson, has told the regents to expect that state higher-ed funding will remain flat or increase only slightly over the next five years. Over the past two years, state funding for higher ed has been cut by $100 million, or 12 percent; it will see another 1.4 percent cut for fiscal 2012.

To their credit, the resilient and resourceful individuals who lead the state universities and community and technical colleges are doing a lot to try to soften the tuition blow and cultivate private dollars. And in recent years the state has targeted funding in important ways, such as for research, deferred maintenance and, this spring, increasing the numbers of engineering graduates.

But it takes significant and steady investment to pursue higher national rankings, including in the salaries that attract and keep outstanding faculty members.

If you’re asking universities to make do with state funding that hasn’t increased for half a decade, Sherrer said, “how can you say to them that ‘we want you to have greater aspirations, and get your national rankings up, and produce more for our workforce’? It just doesn’t work.”

Brownback, a product of two of Kansas’ state universities, soon will have the opportunity to name three people to the nine-member board. As he does, Brownback’s strategy for higher education will become more clear. Does he want to scrap the Board of Regents in favor of some Cabinet-level authority that would strengthen the governor’s hand, an idea recently promoted by House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, that fits with Brownback’s approach to other issues?

If so, that would be a sharp departure from a system that has worked professionally and well.The question going forward for Brownback and other state leaders, including those on the Board of Regents: Is the state behind higher education, or is it backing away from it?