03 December 2009

Suicide Pact, Revisited

In April 2008 I wrote a post called "The Tragic Sinkhole of Low Expectations" about the Kentucky state legislature's decision to decimate the higher education budget and the ridiculous rhetorical victory lap the state's higher ed leaders took in response to state cuts - just falling over themselves complementing the legislature for its commitments to higher ed. The post was later published in Business Lexington. Here's the essence of what I wrote:
I'll try to be clear here: a six-percent cut in higher education is NOT an appropriate reason for college presidents to take a rhetorical victory lap. It's a reason for outrage. This budget is NOT an act of courage or a sign of commitment to education. It's a suicide pact that will send smart people looking for opportunity - the only hope for Kentucky's future - heading toward the exits. It's a sure sign that Kentucky is trapped in a cultural and political sinkhole of low expectations and profoundly wrong-headed thinking.
My wife turned out to be one of those smart people looking for opportunity who headed for the exit, taking her husband and son with her. A former faculty member at the state's flagship university, she's now on the faculty at Duke University School of Medicine. A number of other faculty members in her department have also left.

When the legislature implemented these spending cuts, the University of Kentucky was actually under a statutory mandate to be a "top 20 public university" by 2020. Of course, the legislature didn't specify what "top 20" meant. But at the time, the US News and World Report college rankings - certainly not the only ranking system, but probably the most well-recognized - had UK behind 55 other public universities, dropping a few spots from the previous year.

I checked the most recent rankings for public universities - UK is now tied for last on their list. (BTW, Duke is #10 on the list of ALL universities, not just public or just private.)

Now, in the real world lists like this are subjective and they don't mean much. Except the state legislature has decreed rankings mean quite a bit. They even passed a law. (Can't seem to pass a law making cross burnings a hate crime, though. Apparently too controversial.)

This may be terribly unfair, but I can't help but think this is really a reflection of the values and culture of the people there. The political will exists to be able to say "we're among the best," but not to actually improve by any substantive measure. Having the cheapest cigarettes in the nation is more important than paying market rates for UK employees - unless, of course, that UK employee is the basketball coach, in which case no price is too high.

In fact, for a brief time, Kentucky's highest paid public employee - not simply in the UK system but in the entire Commonwealth - had the following job description: "Do NOT coach the UK basketball team." Seriously. He was supplanted by a guy whose job description is "Please DO coach the UK basketball team." And that guy is paid more than any college basketball coach in America.

And hey, thanks in no small part to those cheap cigarettes, Kentucky can finally boast it's #1 in something, and it's not even close - lung cancer deaths.

Now the economy is in trouble, and faculty at UK should be bracing themselves for another year without a salary increase - and that's a best-case scenario. Faculty lines aren't being filled. Commitments made to recruited faculty aren't being kept. And once again the debate won't be whether the state will cut higher ed funding, but how much.

Of course, my wife and I know plenty of very good people still in Kentucky who know that this is a terrible problem and want their leaders to make the tough decisions to fix it. But the circumstances there lead to one simple conclusion: Kentucky doesn't simply need a shift in thinking, it needs a leadership transplant.

This suicide pact has sealed the fates of too many Kentuckians, and the sinkhole is only growing deeper.