Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kansas House Speaker Merrick blasts regents, KU over funding, salary issues

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick today criticized the Kansas Board of Regents and Kansas University over spending and salaries, including pay raises given to university leaders.

In response, KU spokesman Jack Martin said, "We would welcome Speaker Merrick and his colleagues to visit the university to learn how we’re educating leaders and making discoveries. We’d also like to show them how we are saving money in administrative operations that we then reinvest in teaching and research."

Last week, the regents approved a nearly 14 percent, or $60,000, pay raise for KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

The regents approved raises for all six public university leaders, saying the increases were needed to bring them up to the pay of chief executives at peer institutions.

The raises were all privately financed through the schools' fundraising associations.The increase brought Gray-Little's salary to $492,650. Of that amount, $271,986 is state funded, and $220,664 is privately funded.

Today, Merrick, a Republican from Stilwell, said, "To say we need to bring them up to parity — it's a free market out there. If they want to leave, they leave and somebody else is going to take their place. To say we need to compete with everybody else, I don't buy that."

He also criticized KU for searching for a new vice provost for diversity and equity.

"I see a thing today where KU is replacing a diversity person at a $170-some thousand a year. I'd like to go through and see how many people they have like that on their payroll," he said.

But KU's Martin said Kansas is becoming an increasingly diverse state "and we have a responsibility as the state's flagship university to represent our state."

The regents have been critical of recent cuts to higher education funding by Republican leaders. The board blasted legislators last week, saying that the budget cuts contributed to tuition increases.

KU faces cuts of $13.6 million over two years.

But Merrick shot back at the regents. "I don't think they're doing anything to help their cause. As I stand back to look at things, I think the Board of Regents might be a little complicit in not having any oversight," he said.

The Kansas Board of Regents issued a statement, reiterating the board's earlier request of legislative leaders for budget meetings, which the board said it hoped "will lead to an open and constructive conversation about the challenges and the opportunities facing our state universities, especially in light of the continual decline of state support of higher education."

Merrick also dismissed the idea of having to increase funding to recruit and retain top professors.

"This competing for professors — they don't teach classes anyway. The graduate assistants do the teaching. There are very few professors that sit in the classroom and teach," he said.

But Martin disagreed, saying, "Essentially all of our professors teach, as the thousands of graduates who earned their KU degrees this year can attest. Research enhances teaching and brings Kansas more than $250 million a year, creating jobs and prosperity. That’s a huge return on a shrinking state investment."

Martin added, "Just today we announced that our pharmacy professors who earned NIH grants each brought an average of more than $1 million in research projects to Kansas last year. Their research informs their teaching and is leading to a range of new pharmaceuticals for patients."

Meanwhile, Gov. Sam Brownback said he will continue to fight for what he called stable funding for the universities.

Brownback had called for no cuts to higher education, but he ended up signing the cuts into law when he approved the budget. The cuts total $44 million over two years, about 3 percent per year. Although for some schools, the cuts were deeper. KU Medical Center will see a reduction of more than 8 percent.

"The power of the Legislature is the power of the purse," Brownback said. "At the end of the day that's their constitutional role."