Sam Brownback isn’t really going to be K-State’s next president, is he?
Philip Nel specializes in children’s literature as an English professor at Kansas State University, but events over the past few months have kept a darker genre on his mind.
“I feel like I’ve been living in a dystopian novel,” he says.
The campus where he works will be subject to millions of dollars more in cuts because of Kansas’ ongoing self-inflicted financial crisis. (Reaction has been swift: Moody’s Investors Service just downgraded K-State’s bond rating to a negative outlook.) A new state law will force the university to allow concealed handguns starting next year, over the objections of most students and faculty.
As nightmares go, Nel has begun to grow used to this one. But now comes the real Philip K. Dick part: speculation that the Kansas Board of Regents may choose Gov. Sam Brownback to become K-State’s next president.
“I can think of few people who are less qualified to run a university,” Nel says. “He has run the state into the ground. He seems hostile to education. We hope it is just a rumor.”
Perhaps it is. Brownback has told reporters he’s not a candidate. But Kansas has become a pocked landscape of worst-case scenarios — in keeping with Nel’s dystopian theme — so one can hardly blame the K-State community for fearing that the widely reviled governor may end up replacing the popular Kirk Schulz, who recently left Manhattan, Kansas, for the top job at Washington State University.
The case for Brownback as K-State president goes like this: He is a graduate of the school’s College of Agriculture and a former student body president. He’s barred by the state constitution from running for a third term as governor but will really, really need a job. And retired politicians are successfully running universities in other states. Think former congressman and governor Mitch Daniels in Indiana and former governor and senator David Boren in Oklahoma.
But those aren’t credentials. They are coincidences.
The case against Brownback running K-State is much more robust.
He is the architect of the reckless income-tax cuts that have decimated the state’s budget and resulted in slashed university funding and higher tuition for students. His fiscal policies are the sole cause for the bond-rating downgrades suffered at K-State as well as at other Kansas universities.
Brownback has been polling steadily in national surveys as America’s least-popular governor. That’s not a great position from which to raise funds, which is a university leader’s top calling. And the first place this governor-turned-academic would show up with his hat in his hand is the Kansas Legislature — where Brownback has no credibility left, and everybody knows the state is busted.
Not that it’s just about the money.
Brownback has gone out of his way to alienate LGBT citizens. At a time when universities are looking to international students to shore up enrollments, he has been hostile toward immigrants and refugees. And it’s his signature on the bill allowing concealed carry on school grounds — a move many faculty members rightly call the “weaponization” of campuses.
Oh, and he halted the state’s role in recruiting the bioscience industry — which, as any K-State College of Agriculture graduate can tell you, is a big deal in Manhattan.
But if Brownback has any friends left, they might just be on the Kansas Board of Regents, which will choose Schulz’s permanent successor. The search committee, instructed to recommend “three to five candidates who are the most qualified for Board selection as the next President of Kansas State University,” has as its chairman Manhattan business leader Dennis Mullin, who sits on the Board of Regents and who contributed $5,000 to Brownback’s re-election campaign. Six of the nine regents are Brownback campaign donors. All of the regents were appointed by Brownback.
Still, this might be where old loyalty ends. As a former regent tells The Pitch, “Those people have to live in their communities.” And it would be difficult for Mullin, especially, to face his neighbors in Manhattan after seating Brownback in the university president’s chair.
Brownback may already have done some damage here, though. The mere rumor of his wanting the job sends a signal to qualified potential leaders that this is a contest they can’t win.
As Nels points out, though, a demoralized campus in a state with steadily eroding funds isn’t likely to appeal to academia’s brightest lights anyway. More than the perception that the governor has an inside track to get the job, he says, “I think what would discourage people from applying is the larger disaster Brownback has brought upon the state.”
Even with that disaster continuing to bloom, though, the K-State rumor forces one to hope that Brownback keeps his seat as the governor, at least long enough for someone else to take the job in Manhattan. Talk about a dystopia.