Kansas Board of Regents nominees quizzed about ‘woke’ politics, conflicts of interest

Senate committee advances Gov. Laura Kelly’s nominees to full Senate

By: - September 6, 2022 3:26 pm
Diana Mendoza, a nominee for the Kansas Board of Regents, speaks with a Senate oversight committee that recommended her nomination by Gov. Laura Kelly be taken up by the full Senate. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflectdor)

Diana Mendoza, a nominee for the Kansas Board of Regents, speaks with a Senate oversight committee that recommended her nomination by Gov. Laura Kelly be taken up by the full Senate. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflectdor)

TOPEKA — Senate President Ty Masterson peppered the governor’s three nominees to the Kansas Board of Regents with questions Tuesday about potential of faculty indoctrinating Kansas college students with “woke” ideology aimed at advancing politically or socially liberal ideas.

Masterson said a frequent question posed by his constituents from southcentral Kansas was about whether tenured professors at public universities in the Board of Regents system were engaged in classroom propaganda.

“I know you’re going to run into that over your next few years,” Masterson, an Andover Republican, told nominees.

He also quizzed John Dicus, chairman of Capitol Federal Savings, Diana Mendoza, Dodge City public school director of English for speakers of other languages, and Blake Benson, president of the Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce, about their sense of political tension surrounding higher education.

“We ought to keep the politics out of the university,” said Dicus, who is part of a Capital Federal Foundation that donated about $35 million for college scholarships, professorships and campus buildings. “The academic world is quite different than the business world I work in on a day-to-day basis. I’ve begun to appreciate what they do and how they do it for the students of our universities, for the state, for the businesses.”

Benson, who has served as president of the Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce since 2006, didn’t delve into “woke” political feuding, but said a college education could provide the foundation of a well-rounded person. He expected universities or colleges to challenge students in ways that enabled them to grasp differences of opinion and belief. One objective of an education is to provide skills to engage in civil dialogue on complex topics, he said.

Mendoza, who has more than 20 years of experience as an educator, said her role in Dodge City was to help teachers determine a student’s assets and craft a strategy for filling gaps so each could learn. It’s a challenge in a district with 47% English language learners, 79% viewed as economically disadvantaged and 11% who are migrants, she said.

She said diversity wasn’t simply about where a student came from. Instead, she said, “diversity is about the individual biography of the person.”

 

Blake Benson, middle, president of the Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce, was interviewed by a Kansas Senate committee that endorse his nomination to the Kansas Board of Regents by the full Kansas Senate. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Blake Benson, middle, president of the Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce, spoke with members of the Kansas Senate confirmation committee that Tuesday voted to advance his nomination to the Kansas Board of Regents to the full Kansas Senate. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Trio advances

The Senate Confirmation Oversight Committee, which has a Republican majority, voted to recommend the full Senate consider each of the nominees put forward by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Senate committees could conduct hearings on the nominees after the 2023 legislative session opened in January, but that hasn’t been determined.

In 2022, the process took on an unusually high level of political drama. Several GOP senators worked to derail nominations of former state Sen. Wint Winter Jr., of Lawrence, and former Kansas City, Kansas, school Superintendent Cynthia Lane. Both were eventually confirmed along with former BNSF Railway CEO Carl Ice, of Manhattan.

The state Board of Regents has oversight of six state universities, Washburn University in Topeka as well as the community and technical colleges across the state. The nine members of the board are nominated by the governor subject to confirmation by the Kansas Senate.

If confirmed, the three nominees put forward by Kelly last month would replace former members Bill Feuerborn, Mark Hutton and Allen Schmidt, who all served in the Legislature. Feuerborn and Schmidt were Democrats, while Hutton was a Republican.

Meanwhile, Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn and Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley, both Republicans, asked the nominees whether linkages to higher education institutions they attended or had supported would create conflicts of interest.

Benson said his service to the Pittsburg State University’s foundation, his wife’s employment at PSU and his son’s enrollment in PSU wouldn’t interfere with his ability to fairly consider investments or policy related to other higher education institutions. He said it was a fair question and he would recuse himself from votes if advised to do so by the board’s attorneys.

Dicus and Mendoza also said their association with certain colleges or universities wouldn’t taint their advocacy for higher education generally.

 

Issues to work on

Benson said the state Board of Regents could do a better job recruiting Kansas youth, especially those earning college credit through concurrent enrollment in college-level courses while still in high school. He said his son did that through PSU, but there was little outreach to him to enroll as a freshman.

“We have room for improvement in not assuming the Kansas students are going to go to Kansas universities or colleges,” said Benson, who went to college in Arkansas. “I think that’s something that can be low-hanging fruit.”

Mendoza, director of diversity and English programs in Dodge City public schools, earned an associate’s degree at Dodge City Community College, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Kansas State University and enrolled in an educational doctorate program at KSU.

She was a first-generation college student and was convinced the state could do more to aid high school students seeking a path to higher education. She had benefit of a mentor who helped her navigate the college experience, but most students don’t have that advantage.

“Look at the high school level and the post-secondary level and try to decide what are the access barriers,” she said.

Dicus, who earned two businesses degrees at the University of Kansas, said the Board of Regents should continue with its strategy to shape Kansas higher education to better serve economic interests of communities and businesses.

“Higher education has been a priority of mine and the bank I lead,” Dicus said. “I’m committed to building stronger state universities. We need to be growing the next generation of business leaders.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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