Kansas higher education institutions are vulnerable, and structure could tumble. It would be brutal.
I arrived in Kansas in 1979, having gone to college, grad school and then taught in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois, states with a single land-grant flagship university. Kansas, I observed, had a much smaller population but two major universities (KU, K-State) and one (Wichita State) with such aspirations.
Added to these were three regional universities, another (Washburn University) receiving substantial state aid, and 19 (count ‘em) community colleges. All for fewer than 2.4 million Kansans.
Such immense capacity seemed crazy then, and even more so now, given the hefty administrative and physical plant costs for all this higher education.
Such surplus capacity and duplication of administration and facilities didn’t bother me much. KU generally stood strong, and my own department supported my teaching and scholarship.
Over time, state backing for higher education consistently fell, federal mandates increased, and tuition rates shot up. In 2009, nevertheless, 47% of university expenditures flowed from student tuition and fees to faculty members, the bedrock of any successful school.
Administrators and ancillary personnel rose sharply in numbers and costs, and an increasingly corporate university embarked upon a highly leveraged building spree, gambling (the operative term) on increased federal funding and many more full-pay foreign students. Faculty members were not meaningfully consulted.
By 2020, faculty compensation made up just 25% of student tuition and fees, and only 8.4% to the total KU budget. That’s right, 8.4%.
Then came the pandemic.
Bets were called, as income plummeted and costs soared. All Kansas institutions were vulnerable, and KU especially so, given the long-term declining pool of domestic students and then its abrupt loss of foreign students.
Which gets us to 2021.
The superstructure of Kansas higher education may well tumble, and it will likely be brutal. The implications are legion. Here are just two.
First, I know many young associate professors who recently earned tenure. They are all talented scholars and dedicated teachers. Over the past few years, their pay has barely budged, and lately they’ve absorbed temporary cuts. Now they legitimately fear for their jobs, given the KU administration’s cavalier adoption of a policy that will facilitate terminating tenured faculty.
These young scholars represent exactly the kind of faculty members that KU should nurture for decades to come, but they, like all their faculty counterparts, rightly question the university’s commitment to their future.
Second, the Regents and KU are threatening to gut the University Press of Kansas. Over the years, UPK has established a sterling national reputation by publishing a catalog of important books. Yet collapsing finances may well destroy this highly regarded part of the Regents system, which serves all Kansas public universities but represents just a drop in the Regents’ fiscal bucket.
Nationally, this possibility has generated intense negative reaction from authors and scholars, seriously damaging the state’s academic reputation. No one seems to care.
What’s to be done? Given the Legislature’s lack of support for higher education and the surplus capacity of Kansas state universities, Gov. Laura Kelly should constitute a commission, independent of the Regents, to consider downsizing, divestitures and efficiencies that would support faculty and valuable entities like the University Press.
The most opportune time to do this was 10 or 20 years ago, but it must be done now — right now — without making faculty members the first targets.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.