A Johnson County legislator and one of our state’s top leaders is Public Enemy Number One of higher education, coming from a county where higher education is one of the highest priorities.
State Rep. and Speaker of the House Ray Merrick, a Republican from Stilwell, has it in for Kansas colleges and universities. He wanted to slash their budgets by 4 percent, begrudgingly settling on a compromise in the last legislative session to a cut of 1.5 percent each of the next two years.
KU, for example, faces cuts of $13.6 million over two years, and KU Medical Center faces cuts of more than 8 percent.
No one in the Legislature, either Senate or House, is more slash-and-burn than Merrick, when it comes to higher education, with the possible exception of state Rep. Marc Rhoades of Newton, who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Together, they would like to continue to whack away at higher education, leaving more of the burden on students.
Merrick seems to have it particularly in for the University of Kansas. The Washburn graduate has no love lost for KU. I say that because of a diatribe he let loose a few weeks ago in the Lawrence Journal-World.
He lashed out at the Kansas Board of Regents for granting generous raises to the chancellor of KU, but Merrick failed to clarify that all of the increase was privately funded. In fact, about half the compensation of the chancellor of KU comes from private funds.
Merrick also took another shot across the bow at KU, dismissing the claims that professors will leave KU if they do not keep in parity with competing schools and that it will be more difficult to hire new faculty.
Merrick said professors don’t teach classes anyway. He claims that graduate assistants do the real teaching.
“There are very few professors that sit in the classroom and teach,” Merrick said.
A KU spokesman responded that essentially all professors teach.
Furthermore, Merrick said, “It’s a free market out there. If they (professors) want to leave, they leave and somebody else is going to take their place.”
Merrick has said universities, and particularly KU, overspend. When you read all that Merrick has said publicly, there is no denying that he thinks there is a lot of waste at our universities, particularly KU. He doesn’t believe quality will suffer when higher education takes budget cuts.
While we are in deep recessions, colleges and universities should sacrifice, along with the rest — as they have in Kansas over the last several years. But in recoveries like the one we are in, it should be a time to restore budgets. Nationally, 31 states increased funding for higher education over the previous year. Kansas is among those going backward.
Gov. Sam Brownback tried everything under the sun to keep higher education from taking budget cuts.
Let’s see if he can reverse course in the next session, dealing with someone like Ray Merrick in his key role.
In the meantime, there are more KU alumni who live in Johnson County than any other county on the planet. If they have something to say to Ray Merrick, they should do so, loudly.