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Realigning Higher Education’s priorities

By Sam Terry
March 30, 2016

For weeks, news from the Kentucky General Assembly and Kentucky’s public universities has focused on a battle for bucks being waged between Gov. Matt Bevin and the Kentucky House of Representatives.  It’s hard to ignore the continually rising costs of obtaining a college education.  It’s also hard to ignore the massive amounts of money being raised by the universities for special projects and endowments.  Without a doubt, Kentuckians want to see students have high-quality, effective educational opportunities available to them, but they should also have an awareness of how our public colleges are spending their resources.

Kentucky’s public institutions of higher learning don’t always make wise choices in how to spend money, in fact they sometimes spend it foolishly as highlighted by former Kentucky legislator Bob Heleringer last week in his opinion piece in the Courier-Journal.  Personal Services Contracts (PSCs) between state agencies with purported experts, consultants, lawyers, physicians, and those offering a variety of services and products, comes to more than $3.4 billion – yes, that’s billion with a “b.”  Some of those contracts are actually needed and others most likely enrich the individuals offering a service in exchange for money that, in part, comes from taxpayers’ wallets.

Here are a few examples:

  • A couple of years ago Western Kentucky University spent $285,000 for a company to manage its phonathon, a fundraising effort that once was staffed by student volunteers and faculty.  Last year the school paid $250,000 for the same service but Northern Kentucky University spent over $300,000 with the same firm for its efforts.
  • Morehead State University spent $155,050 for a company to consult them on “a comprehensive wayfinding project” for the campus.  In case you were wondering, wayfinding is a fancy term for directional signs.  There must be lots of lost people on campus because the school is spending another $128,299 this year for the same purpose.
  • Eastern Kentucky University paid $160,000 to gain “expert guidance in developing a new brand strategy” that will give the school a “thematic, messaging, and visual symbology foundation.”
  • The University of Kentucky sought to enter into four $100,000 contracts with companies to “provide web development services consistent with the school’s graphics and web standards.”  Ironically, the school withdrew the plans after Sen. Max Wise, the co-chairman of the Government Contract Review Committee, asked for the documents to be pulled for his committee’s review.
  • During last fall’s football season, WKU paid $33,000 to “security services” which escorted visiting football teams from the Kentucky state line to the campus and then back following the game.
  • The University of Louisville spent more than $1.65 million with consultants for “executive recruitment” and another $246,700 for “event coordination.”

Good leadership for our public universities is essential but it doesn’t come without a price.  For example, UK’s president, Eli Capiluto, earned a base salary of $535,500 per year but he also earned $152,500 in bonuses.  U of L president James Ramsey f L Foundation which holds about $1.1 billion.  By comparison, WKU’s leader, Gary Ransdell, seems to be took in $1,682,176 in a year between his base salary and extra compensation from the nonprofit U o a bargain earning $427,824 per year.

Such figures seem rather gargantuan to the students and their families who are struggling to pay continually increasing tuition costs.  For example, this semester an in-state WKU student taking only 12 hours (4 classes) will need to find around $4,700 for tuition; that student also needs a place to stay, food to eat, and transportation.  It’s no wonder Kentucky students get upset when they hear about state officials’ plans to cut funding to their chosen schools.  They know the reality – the regents who direct each school will pass along the need for revenue to the students rather than find ways to be more efficient in spending their resources.

By comparison, it’s easy to question the sincerity of the various spokesmen in bemoaning cuts to higher education.  Ramsey said the loss of funds to U of L “would take a toll that everybody would feel.”  Ransdell declared that he was devastated by the thoughts of funding cuts and said “20-30 programs would be totally eliminated” if the cuts were enacted; he didn’t specify which programs would be eliminated.  Capiluto fell in line with predicted tuition increases and said the cuts would be challenging.  EKU’s Michael Benson said cuts in state funding would cause his institution to look for ways to “improve efficiencies and reduce expenses.”

Most Kentuckians looks for ways to “improve efficiencies and reduce expenses” each day in their homes and businesses – it’s simply a part of how we must live these days.  Perhaps it’s time Kentucky’s universities realign their priorities to do the same.

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