Eagle editorial: End the ill will, cuts

Here’s hoping that state lawmakers’ planned six-day autumn tour of state universities leads to better communication and funding, and to an end of the ill will and punitive cuts. The relationship is in poor shape – rather like the budgets of families trying to pay fall tuition bills.

Instead of heeding Gov. Sam Brownback’s call for flat funding, the 2013 Legislature cut state universities’ funding 3 percent over two years and largely ignored the University of Kansas’ request for help to fund a new $75 million medical education building at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. Not only that, but Brownback and the Legislature approved the creation of and $1.1 million startup money for an adult stem cell research and treatment center at KU that the university didn’t ask for. Lawmakers also passed a bill, opposed by the Kansas Board of Regents, meant to phase in concealed-carry of guns on campuses.

And the claims leveled by some leading legislators have been stunning for their sharp tone and lack of substance, including that universities sit on unencumbered cash balances, raise tuition and salaries unnecessarily, and construct unneeded buildings because donors want to put their names on them.

Predictably, the funding cuts prompted another round of tuition hikes – though lawmakers won’t take responsibility for that cause and effect. Nor will they acknowledge that criticizing private donation is no way to encourage more to offset the decline of state support – from 75 percent of universities’ budgets in the 1970s to 20 percent now.

Bigger budgets supported by expanded fundraising aren’t a bad thing. “We’re trying to raise funds to enhance the quality of what we do,” KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little told The Eagle editorial board last week. She also said KU officials are trying to find ways to control costs across their operations.

The subject of better relations with the Legislature came up at a regents retreat last week, with board chairman Fred Logan of Leawood saying “there needs to be a full-throated defense about what we are doing.”

One idea floated at the retreat only made things worse, though. When regents offered to keep tuition rates flat next year if the Legislature restores $36 million in funding, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, suggested they were “positioning Kansas students and families as bargaining chips in a budget debate.”

For his part, according to the Lawrence Journal-World, Brownback advised the higher education officials to be as transparent as possible with lawmakers and open to their concerns.

“We need to talk more,” Brownback told the regents.

Good advice.

As it is, the Legislature’s inexplicable new hostility toward higher education is doing nothing for the state’s economy or future workforce, and doing a number on the students and parents expected to pay the resulting tuition hikes and eventually pay off mounting student loan debt.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman