TOPEKA — The House Appropriations Committee voted to insert in the budget for state universities a mandatory tuition rebate to students based on the number of classes taught online and the academic days dropped from the calendar during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time across the street in Topeka, the Kansas Board of Regents was involved in meetings to discuss how the six public universities would deal with a pandemic-driven revenue collapse by dropping academic programs, terminating employees or making other spending adjustments. The Board of Regents agreed to a request from the University of Kansas to extend until July 1 the deadline for deciding whether to utilize a new policy making it easier to dismiss tenured faculty in wake of a projected $72 million budget shortfall at KU.
Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican who has objected to K-12 remote learning and asked if Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, public school districts could be stripped of COVID-19 aid, triggered lively debate in the House budget committee by proposing state universities retroactively refund to students 100% of tuition for every day academic instruction was called off. In addition, his amendment would require a 50% tuition break for every course delivered online by the universities. The sanction wouldn’t apply to private colleges and universities nor the technical and community colleges.
The House committee approved his amendment despite lack of an estimate of what compliance would cost Wichita State University, Fort Hays State University, Kansas State University, Emporia State University, Pittsburg State University and KU.
“It’s a huge issue,” said Tarwater, who expressed confidence students, including his son, were shortchanged by online instruction. “I get calls all the time. They’re very frustrated with what’s going on and how their kids are being taught.”
Tarwater said he objected to the universities granting students a longer holiday break. He said online laboratory courses weren’t effective and that parents reported to him their children were cheating on final exams conducted online. The GOP lawmaker also said members of the Board of Regents texted him to say they believed the tuition refund was a good idea and to pledge to help develop a strategy to make it happen.
“This last year they didn’t really learn anything,” Tarwater said. “I can’t believe there hasn’t been any discussion on this. We need to spur the discussion. I’m a business guy and I can tell you when you go into a negotiation, you need to have a position. This gives us a position.”
Rep. Troy Waymaster, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said representatives of the Board of Regents and the universities would be called to testify about their response to COVID-19 and to discuss implications of tuition refunds. The universities have been able to refund housing, parking and other fees to students through allocations of federal disaster aid.
Waymaster said he earned an online master’s degree in business administration at FHSU, but acknowledged that method of learning wasn’t the best model for every student.
“When you do attend classes virtually, you have to be extremely disciplined,” Waymaster said. “You have to teach yourself. I will attest to that. It’s not easier. Actually, I think it’s more difficult not being in in-person learning.”
During the Board of Regents meeting, the board unanimously agreed to a request from KU chancellor Doug Girod to extend until July 1 the deadline for submitting university plans for use of a policy approved by the board Jan. 20 to lessen procedural hurdles for termination, suspension or dismissal of employees, including tenured faculty. The policy originally required the state university officials to submit a framework within in early March. The personnel policy, tied to the pandemic, would be available to the public universities through Dec. 31, 2022.
“The chancellor has indicated to me that the additional time will enable KU to continue to pursue other avenues for addressing their financial challenges before determining whether use of this policy will be necessary,” said Blake Flanders, who is president and chief executive officer of the Board of Regents President and CEO Blake Flanders said. “I believe it does make sense to push this initial timeline out another four months.”
The six universities supervised by the Board of Regents have been working to restrict expenditures. Each of the universities already possessed authority to reduce personnel without deploying the controversial policy.
Betsy Esch, who works with the OneKU organization at KU opposed to the Board of Regents’ policy, said faculty, staff and students had urged KU administrators to renounce the policy. The organization issued a statement arguing the “reckless policy” would unilaterally suspend tenure protections as well as established procedures of shared governance, transparency and due process.
“The new policy gives a blank check to the chancellor to make sweeping changes,” OneKU letter said. “The regents have asked us to trust the chancellor in a time of crisis, but our financial issues predate the pandemic. This recent experience suggests that accountability is in order. To annul shared governance and transparency instead degrades the working conditions of the entire university and the learning conditions for all of our students.”