Let’s not burn down the Kansas institutions that made us

March 21, 2021 3:33 am

The 125,000 students in the 32 institutions overseen by the Kansas Board of Regents will become the state’s doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, mechanics and high school teachers, as well as its writers, artists, filmmakers, philosophers and other dreamers who complete the rich cultural narrative of what it means — for better or worse — to be a Kansan, writes Max McCoy, who teaches at Emporia State University. (Max McCoy)

Higher education in Kansas is under attack.

From a plan to temporarily scrap tenure to a proposed budget that would lop $37 million in state funding from public institutions, campuses across the state are reeling.

It’s already been a bad year for colleges, which have tried to keep students safe from the coronavirus by temporarily closing campuses and exploring non-traditional methods of instruction. Now, most campuses have gone to a hybrid system of remote and online learning, but the compromise has made just about everyone unhappy.

Schools never really recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, and the added burdens of the pandemic have forced schools to make deep cuts. Operating budgets have been slashed, hiring has been frozen, faculty travel canceled. Some vacant faculty positions needed to maintain program certifications have been eliminated. Those of us in higher education have increasingly had to do more with less. Now, there’s nothing left to cut except people, and this realization has had a demoralizing effect on students, faculty and staff.

Finally, as if things weren’t bad enough, comes a budget amendment at the Statehouse that would force schools to refund tuition for online classes. While lawmakers are rushing to provide tax relief and other support for businesses large and small, why is higher education in the crosshairs of the state Legislature?

It’s because that’s how deeply red the Kansas Statehouse is.

There was a curious shift in American attitudes about higher education between 2015 and 2019. During that period, the percentage of adults who believed college had a positive effect went from an overwhelming majority to just about even, according to a study from the Pew Research Center.

This growing dissatisfaction, suspicion and downright resentment of higher education by half the population was not evenly distributed across all demographics. Rather, it represented yet another fissure of a partisan divide that threatens to engulf us. The division over higher education coincides exactly with Donald Trump’s presidency, the Pew study found. While support for higher education by Democrats remained stable during those years, with percentages that exceeded 2-1, perception by Republicans of the value of higher education plummeted.

In 2015, most Republicans — 54% — saw college as a positive influence.

By 2019, only 33% did.

This, despite study after study that shows higher education is one of the surest ways to a higher income. But the value of a college degree goes beyond the economic. It is also reflected in a higher overall satisfaction with one’s life, a sense of contributing to the common good, and making our communities better places to live.

The 32 institutions overseen by the Kansas Board of Regents have touched the lives of all of us, in one way or another. From the flagship institution, the University of Kansas, right down to the smallest student body, the Salina Area Technical College, they have made our lives richer in every sense.

The 125,000 students in the system will become our doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, mechanics and high school teachers. These schools also produce the writers, artists, filmmakers, philosophers and other dreamers who complete the rich cultural narrative of what it means — for better or worse — to be a Kansan.

But the fusillade of misfortunes facing the state’s public institutions is only growing more intense.

Fewer students are enrolled — fall 2020 was down 3.6% at the six state universities — so that means fewer tuition dollars. A plan to temporarily scrap faculty tenure so universities could fire at will proved divisive and unpopular, with only one school — the University of Kansas — not rejecting the scheme outright. While campuses continued to soldier on, with professors wiping down desks with disinfectant between classes, new worries emerged as Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget called for a 5.5% cut for higher education — a $37 million reduction. GOP lawmakers applauded. There was too much waste, too many duplicated programs, and things just weren’t run in a business-like fashion. Because, you know, campuses are businesses. Right?

The scheme to have the state’s public institutions of higher education refund tuition for students who took courses online during the pandemic came in the form of a budget amendment proposed by Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Johnson County Republican. Tarwater claimed “kids didn’t really learn anything” in the past year and that he had talked to many parents who had watched their children cheat on online final exams by taking them together. What kind of parent watches their children cheat and doesn’t correct them? The amendment reeks of a partisan disdain for remote learning that goes hand-in-hand with the kind of thinking that bristles at any common-sense measure to protect people from the virus. In this case, those being protected were largely young adults, many of whom live in the kind of congregate housing where the virus loves to spread.

We already knew the Republicans who control the Kansas Legislature would rather endanger us all in the name of freedom and “personal responsibility” than give the governor the powers necessary to keep the majority of us safe during a health crisis. We knew the GOP rank-and-file lawmakers often refuse to wear masks, even when it would be safer for them to do so. They are literally risking killing themselves to prove their ultra-conservative credentials.

So, is it surprising this anti-science ruling faction would assault the very institutions charged with advancing knowledge?

If the Tarwater budget amendment is adopted, it would cost Regents schools $150 million, delivering a crippling blow to an already weakened system. This is cultural arsonism, a way of punishing institutions that from the state’s founding have been vital to Kansas but which fell out of favor during the age of Trump.

Instead of helping our institutions recover from the pandemic, these Team Red lawmakers would rather take advantage of fiscal hardship to damage, disrupt and perhaps destroy an essential fabric of Kansas cultural life.

The fraudster Trump is finally out of the Oval Office, but you wouldn’t know it at the Kansas Statehouse. Here, and in other red legislatures across the country, his influence continues unabated. Vouchers to divert tax money to private schools? Yes, let’s! Fight mask mandates because it is every American’s right to freely infect themselves and others? Absolutely! Oppose remote learning and demand tuition refunds because them kids ain’t learning nothing? USA! USA!

One day, Kansans will wake up from the nightmare that four years of indoctrination at Trump University has cost us. We’ll be ashamed, but we will pick ourselves up, wipe the orange bronzer from our eyes and survey the damage. Then we will begin to rebuild.

I just hope there is enough left of what Kansans really value — education, equal opportunity, love for ourselves and our neighbors — to put things back together.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than twenty books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.