Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to visit with the House Higher Education Budget Committee, which this year includes a number of first-year legislators. It was my second visit in three weeks with this group, and each time, I was heartened to meet with so many thoughtful lawmakers who care deeply about our state and our university.
As you would expect, the committee was interested in KU’s finances in the context of the state’s budget challenges. I reminded the committee that inflation-adjusted per-student state funding for KU has declined 44 percent in 17 years, which includes last year’s $10.7 million cut. I also reminded the group that KU’s top priority this session is the restoration of last year’s cut and stable state funding moving forward. After two decades of declining state financial support, we cannot absorb additional cuts without significant negative impacts to our university.
In addition to our budget, the committee was genuinely interested in KU’s efforts to educate leaders, build healthy communities and make discoveries that change the world. For example, on the topic of educating leaders, I explained that KU has now had five straight years of freshman class growth, and that the freshman class of 2016 is the most academically talented group in KU history.
We reviewed the ways KU builds healthy communities and creates a more prosperous Kansas. For example, KU Medical Center plays a crucial role in educating healthcare professionals and providing life-saving outreach across the state. There are 38 active startup companies based on KU technology. Each year, KU provides 6,000 new graduates to the workforce. Last year, KU researchers were awarded $238.8 million in external funding, which is new money that flows into Kansas. And by 2020, our efforts to achieve National Cancer Institute designation for the KU Cancer Center will have created 4,140 jobs, while our Central District project is now creating 700 jobs per year. Put simply, I wanted the committee to know that KU is an economic engine for Kansas.
The committee was interested in the work we’ve done to become more efficient and reinvest in priorities through the Changing for Excellence initiative in Lawrence and related efforts at KU Medical Center. In recent years, we have achieved savings by launching paperless procurement and strategic sourcing, consolidating information technology units, implementing energy efficiency projects, and installing license plate recognition and badge reading systems. These savings have been reinvested in priorities such as faculty hires, scholarships and fellowships, technology updates and new facilities – most notably the Health Education Building and the Central District project.
This year’s Legislature is facing difficult choices. Please know we continue to work closely with the Kansas Board of Regents, other Kansas institutions and state legislators to protect higher education in Kansas. As always, the best thing you can do to support KU is to continue educating students, serving Kansans and conducting world-class research. Your efforts are the most powerful endorsement of our university and the most compelling message we can send to lawmakers as they make funding decisions.