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Higher education leader walks tightrope with lawmakers

As Robert L. King, the new president of the state Council on Postsecondary Education, made his first rounds through the Capitol last week, the crush of his sometimes conflicting job duties became clear.

King is charged with advocating for public university funding at a time when the legislature and governor are faced with cutting the budget because of the tumultuous economy. He also must work with lawmakers who have become skeptical of the universities in light of rising tuition rates and the prospect of another round of increases next academic year.

"It's an interesting tightrope to walk," King said Friday after his first week on the job, which came just before the General Assembly reconvenes Feb. 3. "I think the legislature and the public must have confidence that the universities are effective institutions."

At the same time, he said university presidents need to have faith that the council "is an asset to them" — a belief that has eroded under previous council presidents.

So this year's legislative priorities for King and the university presidents can be boiled down to two overarching goals: secure as much money for the universities as possible and restring the lines of political communication between campuses and the Capitol.

Neither will be easy.

"People in the General Assembly are concerned to the point that they're frustrated and mad at these huge (tuition) rate increases we've seen that nobody can explain," said House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. "There is a huge concern in the General Assembly about our system of postsecondary education and the way it treats its students, the way it manages itself and the way it spends its money."

But Stumbo, a longtime lawmaker and former attorney general who was elected speaker earlier this month, is eager to give King a chance. He was heartened after meeting with King on Wednesday for 45 minutes.

King is the former chancellor of the State University of New York system who once served as a Republican state legislator in New York and briefly as that state's budget director under Republican former Gov. George Pataki.

Stumbo said King's background and apparent willingness to explore new approaches to tuition and budgeting will serve him — and the universities — well.

Among the topics they discussed was a plan King proposed in New York that would allow college freshmen to pay the same tuition for four years at a public state university.

"That was encouraging because it's a sign that he is willing ... to creatively address some of these problems," Stumbo said.

To curb education costs to students during tough economic times, some lawmakers, including Republican Senate President David Williams of Burkesville, have floated the idea of freezing tuition rates. Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, has filed a bill that would keep tuition rates the same during the next two years and put a cap on rates for 2011-12.

This comes after the University of Kentucky raised its rates 9 percent before this academic year, an increase that was similar to those at most of the other eight public universities and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

King said after meeting with legislative leaders of both parties last week that he "didn't hear a lot of support" for tuition caps or freezes.

Indeed, key lawmakers such as Stumbo, Senate Republican Floor Leader Dan Kelly of Springfield and House Education Chairman Carl Rollins, D-Midway, told the Herald-Leader that such proposals were not on their agendas.

King, however, said one of his top priorities in the coming weeks is to hammer out a standardized system to calculate tuition rates for the universities.

"What I hope we can accomplish is a set of criteria that the presidents accept, that the CPE board accepts and hopefully the legislature has confidence in as an appropriate way to evaluate tuition," King said.

The results would be different based on the size of the campus, student demographics and financial aid availability, as well as the schools' different missions. UK and the University of Louisville are research-focused schools while others are regional general education universities.

"The real thing that will be beneficial to the university is to have a predictable funding process and for the universities to have a predictable tuition process," said UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. "The ups and downs of the budget we receive from the state are hard to manage."

For most universities, including UK, state funding has remained stagnant in recent years, which they say has forced them to rely more on tuition.

Todd notes that the state legislature used the 1997 higher education reforms to charge UK with becoming a Top 20 national research university. That doesn't happen without money to pay top-flight professors and technical staff, Todd said.

That's why he said it's unfair for lawmakers to criticize the university for raising tuition beyond the rate of increase in the Consumer Price Index.

"We like for people to understand that if they want us to be a (Consumer Price Index) university, we can be a CPI university, but we'll never be Top 20," he said.

These initial arguments over funding and tuition rates only underscore the sticky web King is walking into.

He also must help repair the Council on Postsecondary Education's image problem among university presidents and lawmakers.

University leaders have said some previous council leaders were too meek in their efforts to secure funding from the legislature.

Lawmakers have complained that the council and its board have failed to keep the colleges accountable in certain areas.

"Some members of the General Assembly leadership have ignored the CPE's work, and some of the presidents have made end-runs around the CPE to lobby lawmakers directly," said Kelly, the Republican Senate leader.

When asked what Kelly's expectations for the council are this session, he said, "At this point, I don't have any."

Still, King won't be alone in rehabilitating the council's image and place. Former Gov. Paul Patton is the council's new chairman.

Patton, the author of the 1997 higher education reforms, has said the council must return its focus to bolstering the quality of education — not just quantity.

In addition to helping the council re-engage, Patton has served as a sponsor of sorts for King, introducing him to lawmakers and state officials during last week's trip to the Capitol.

"We're on the same team," Patton said after being elected chairman Jan. 16. "And we're going to work together to accomplish the goals that this commonwealth has said it wanted to accomplish."