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State falling behind in university funding

The recent outcry against the Kansas Legislature's whack at higher education funding came too late to prevent a short-sighted and misguided assault on state-supported colleges and universities.

Though Gov. Sam Brownback sought to maintain funding for higher ed, his conservative legislative majority did not fall in line on this one. Now the governor must confront cuts to higher ed that Tim Emert, chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, has called "devastating."

According to the Regents' numbers, the damage during the next two years will total $48.7 million at the 32 public institutions under its umbrella. Among budget areas to be reduced are student financial aid and salaries.

Now, the governor is left scratching his head, trying to figure out how to veto the cuts without simultaneously eliminating overall higher-ed funding.

Ironically, Kansas lawmakers passed the budget in a year when their peers in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado and Oklahoma all increased higher-ed support.

Why is Kansas the regional outlier?

As usual in Kansas, the divide is not Republican vs. Democrat. This time it's not even conservative vs. moderate.

Instead, the politics of higher-ed funding breaks along a fault line separating those who value the life of the mind and recognize the economic development contributions of education from anti-intellectuals who see education as a commodity that should be produced with the fewest inputs possible.

In this political environment, the governor, who is no egghead but clearly understands the universities' links to quality of life and the state economy, parts company with those who are in his own ideological camp on most other fiscal matters.

He's not alone among Republicans in criticizing the Legislature's action. One of the most intriguing comments to be published following the budget vote came from Robba Moran, a Regent and wife of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.

"If you want to have outstanding universities, you have to pay for them," she said.

That's the crux of the problem. Those who voted to cut the regents' budget by 6.3 percent through two years do not see outstanding universities as a desirable goal -- at least not one the state treasury should pay for.

This calculation does not consider the long-term cost of deferred maintenance to university buildings or institutions' inability to attract and retain top faculty. Nor does it take account of the burden on Kansas families when costs are shifted to household budgets in the form of tuition increases.

The Legislature's budget vote comes at a time when higher education is experiencing historic challenges. A national debate rages about the comparative value of a degree earned in a four-year window by attending classes in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Institutions of higher learning are under the gun to develop online and other non-traditional programs to meet the needs of adults (and their employers) who see evenings and weekends as more appropriate times to attend classes.

At the same time, the state's largest universities must expand the existing educational infrastructure for research and, at all institutions, increase enrollments of traditional, tuition-paying students.

Even without a budgetary whammy from the Legislature, the times demand creative responses from Regents institutions. Unfortunately, innovation, a process that requires trial and error, rarely happens when resources are deficient and administrators and faculty fear being accused of extravagance. Under overly restrictive budgetary conditions, it's human nature to make decisions that are safe and cheap, not ones that create new opportunities.

Even if the governor finds a way to restore funding, the Legislature has made a public statement that support for higher education is a low priority and university systems in other states are welcome to eclipse ours.

Gwyn Mellinger is professor and chairwoman of the Department of Mass Media at Baker University in Baldwin City.