University presidents impress legislators with funding request

FRANKFORT—Three public university leaders received a warmer reception from lawmakers than in past years while asking the legislature to preserve their state funding Thursday.

Presidents of Northern Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State universities stressed the work their institutions have done to bolster primary and secondary education, streamline programs and increase student graduation rates — all while seeing their part of state support taper off in recent years.

Some lawmakers on the House budget subcommittee on post-secondary education had sternly rebuked higher education leaders in past years for making unrealistic budget requests, competing with each other and not operating efficiently.

Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, who also is Eastern Kentucky University's executive vice president, thanked the presidents for "your unity, your realism, your dedication to the state." He added that he previously has been a critic, particularly when universities came to the legislature and "asked for the moon."

This time, Kentucky's nine public college and university presidents are asking lawmakers not to cut their budgets.

Coordinated by Council on Postsecondary Education President Bob King, the institutions requested 2.7 percent increases in funding in fiscal year 2011 and 4.6 percent in 2012. Much of that increase is for maintenance and operations money for new university buildings — funding the General Assembly has traditionally provided until the last state budget.

Not approving that money this time would be like a $2.4 million budget cut at Morehead and a $4 million cut at NKU, the presidents said.

NKU President Jim Votruba said sharp reductions would undo progress since the passage of the Higher Education Reform Act in 1997. A 10 percent cut at NKU, for instance, could mean as many as 100 layoffs, he said.

In three statistics-heavy presentations, the presidents laid out highlights of their progress:

■ In the three Northern Kentucky counties of Boone, Kenton and Campbell, the percentage of adults with degrees has gone from 22 to 27 percent since 2000.

■ Average ACT scores of incoming freshmen have gone up at all three institutions.

■ Each has expanded online programs while eliminating majors that have become less relevant.

And even while tuition has increased, Morehead President Wayne Andrews told lawmakers, his school doles out more in financial aid than it brings in from tuition.

The six other public college and university leaders will go before the committee next month.

The House budget chairman, Rick Rand, D-Bedford, said it would be hard for them to avoid the knife completely, considering the state's $1.5 billion two-year deficit and no new source of revenue on the horizon.

"It's going to be awfully difficult to come out of this with no cuts for them, but I hope to minimize it as much as possible," Rand said.