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Patton's Reforms
Kentucky governor brings change to postsecondary education

Kentucky Governor Paul Patton

By Robert T. Garrett

AT A LATE-SEPTEMBER gathering billed as ãday oneä of the ãtransformation of postsecondary educationä in Kentucky, Governor Paul Patton told university regents and members of a newly-strengthened coordinating board how to do their jobs.

Be forward-thinking, Patton said. Be independent. Be prepared to resign in protest if Kentuckyâs university presidents succumb to their old habits of making end-runs around system planners to seek legislative approval for pet projects. If you donât like elements of the stateâs new higher education reform law, which the governor authored, then seek changes.

But please resign first, Patton quickly added. ãYou cannot implement a policy and fight it at the same time,ä he said.

After a year-long study that culminated in a bruising three-month battle with the University of Kentucky, Patton succeeded last spring in pushing through legislation that included these reforms:

creating a stronger coordinating agency÷the Council on Postsecondary Education÷with increased influence over budgets and academic programs.
removing all but one of the stateâs 14 community colleges from the University of Kentuckyâs control and placing them, along with 25 technical schools, under a new governing board.
establishing a new ãstrategic committeeä to advise the governor and the postsecondary education council on long-range higher education policy.
creating a series of ãincentive fundsä to promote improvements across a broad range of activities, from higher-quality research to better student financial aid systems.
starting a new ãCommonwealth Virtual Universityä to expand classes and other academic offerings through television and computer technology.
To bring all this about, Patton added $40 million to the higher education budget for the 1998 fiscal year and pledged to find an additional $60 million per year for improvements, over and above basic funding and cost-of-living increases.

Later, the governor said Kentucky probably will have to spend an additional $100 million per year to realize his reform goals, especially his intention to make the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville into first-class research institutions.

Pattonâs reforms have been praised by many business and higher education leaders. ãIt was just an extraordinary stroke of leadership,ä said Ron Geoghegan, a public affairs official with BellSouth of Kentucky and chairman of Kentucky Advocates for Higher Education÷a group that has been clamoring since 1985 for more financial support for the stateâs higher education system.

ãThe real issue is changing the higher education culture in this state,ä said Gary Cox, executive director of the coordinating agency that has been replaced. ãHistorically, the presidents of our institutions, especially UK (the University of Kentucky) have dominated higher education. This is an attempt to change the political landscape.ä

If the reforms take hold, they should enhance the prestige and the independence of the University of Louisville and of the stateâs six regional universities, as well as the 14 community colleges and 25 technical schools.

But the governorâs program was bitterly opposed by the University of Kentucky, the stateâs flagship institution, and by many community college leaders as well.

UK President Charles T. Wethington, Jr. called the reforms ãan attack on the University of Kentucky.ä In a debate with Governor Patton last spring, Wethington said the plan was ãfundamentally flawedä and ãwill hurt students the mostä by placing them under a ãpolitical bureaucracy in Frankfortä (the state capital). Wethingtonâs opposition was so fierce that many Kentucky political observers wonder if he can survive, now that the governorâs proposals have become law.

Patton, a 60-year-old Democrat, is an engineer (a graduate of the University of Kentucky) and a former coal company owner who struck it rich during the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s. He was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1991, and in 1995 narrowly defeated Republican Larry Forgy for the governorship.

During the campaign, Patton had little to say about higher education, so his aides were startled to find themselves drafting an inaugural speech that touted higher education as the new governorâs highest priority.

But the need was obvious. After dramatically expanding capacity and enrollments during the 1960s and â70s, the state put its colleges and universities on starvation rations. From 1980 to 1995, state appropriations per full-time-equivalent student rose only 58 percent, while inflation ran at a 94 percent clip.

Although the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville regularly produce nationally-ranked basketball teams, few of their academic programs have attained similar stature.

Graduation rates were low at many Kentucky institutions, and duplication of academic programs was common. The system was fragmented and uncoordinated. There was little cooperation among the six regional universities, nor between the community colleges and the technical schools.

ãThe whole system was driven by turf battles, not by state concerns,ä said Aims C. McGuinness of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, who became the governorâs principal adviser on the reform program.

As he mulled the systemâs weak coordination, poor funding, unresponsiveness to a changing economy and enervating addiction to political in-fighting, Governor Patton was deeply impressed by a single event.

In June, 1996, he hosted a ceremony for eight recent high school graduates who, primarily on the basis of their scores on college admissions tests, had been chosen as finalists or semi-finalists in the national Presidential Scholar program. Patton was shocked to learn that all eight were going out of state for college.

ãHe just said that shouldnât be,ä said Shirleen Sisney, a former National Teacher of the Year, who runs the Governorâs Scholars program÷a state version of the national competition. According to Sisney, Patton said, ãWe should have a research university of the caliber of the University of North Carolina or the University of Virginia. We donât have a great private school like Duke or Vanderbilt, so the stateâs going to have to do it.ä

At first, Patton and his aides thought a single ãsuper boardä over all of Kentucky higher education might stop the turf wars and provide a more coherent system. But McGuinness and others argued for a decentralized system, with a ãlean and meanä coordinating agency and a new financing mechanism. Eventually, the governor dropped the ãsuper boardä idea as politically unacceptable and embraced the McGuinness approach.

Governing authority was left in the hands of existing boards of trustees at the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and the six regional universities, but a new governing board÷the Kentucky Technical and Community College System÷was established to run the two-year colleges and technical schools.

It is hoped that the new, beefed-up Council on Postsecondary Education will have much more influence over higher education budgets and academic program review than the former coordinating body did.

ãIn the past, the council was just a collator of budget requestsä from the various campuses, said Gary Cox, who has resigned after 11 years as executive director of the old agency. ãThe new council is supposed to play a major role in making recommendations that go to the governor.ä

The Council on Postsecondary Education also will decide which institutions qualify for money, and for how much, from the new ãincentive fundsä which account for $17 million of the $40 million in new higher education spending in the current fiscal year. The incentive money is in addition to basic funding for each institution, plus cost-of-living increases.

The president of the new council, unnamed as yet, will be paid more than UK President Wethington, who earns $185,241 per year, and is expected to be a top adviser to the governor. But this will depend on the effectiveness of the new president and the relationship that he or she develops with the governor.

Patton hopes the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville will use money from the incentive funds to develop excellence in selected research fields, and that they will try not to spread themselves too thin. A long-range goal is to place UK among the nationâs top 20 research universities (it now ranks 45th among public universities in research and development spending, according to the National Science Foundation) and to make Louisville a leading urban research university.

But only a few million dollars have been earmarked for that purpose this year, while Wethington has argued that it would take a one-time expenditure of $691 million, plus additional spending of more than $100 million per year, to achieve Pattonâs goal.

University of Louisville President John Shumaker, taking a different political tack, has come up with a plan to trim some current programs and use the savings, along with private funds and the new state incentive dollars, to build a national reputation in a few selected fields.

McGuinness said the incentive funds can be used to leverage other monies, private and federal, citing the success of the State University of New York in using limited amounts of new state money to enhance the research reputations of its four doctoral campuses.

However, Patton apparently has come to realize that building excellence in research will be more expensive than he initially thought. Recently the governor acknowledged that Kentucky probably will have to plow an additional $100 million per year into higher education, on top of the $100 million increase already promised, to reach that goal.

University of Kentuck President Charles T. Wethington, Jr. fought the governor's reform plan
Wethington and many others worry that Kentucky will not be willing to make this kind of long-term investment in the university. If Patton is re-elected in 1999, as now seems likely, the dollars will continue to flow for at least another four years, but what will happen when the next governor takes office?

The stateâs six regional universities÷Eastern, Western, Northern, Murray, Morehead and Kentucky State÷are expected to experience less rapid change under the new law than either the two research universities or the community colleges and technical schools. But the financial basis for the regional campuses has been altered significantly.

Under the old formula, funding for the regional universities was ãentirely enrollment-driven,ä explained James Ramsey, a Western Kentucky University vice president who is Pattonâs state budget director and also his point man on higher education reform. ãWe even were encouraged to take underprepared students, because we got more dollars.ä

In the new scheme of things, Ramsey said, the only source of new state dollars will be the incentive funds that force the regional institutions to consider quality.

For example, Western Kentucky University officials might decide to seek Council on Postsecondary Education approval to use some of the incentive pool money to strengthen its already-respected photojournalism program. To do that, Western Kentucky would have to come up with matching money, either from private fundraising or by making cuts in other academic programs.

Of all the changes, the most controversial was stripping the University of Kentucky of day-to-day control of the 14 community colleges, which have provided UK with a strong base of political support throughout the state. In the past, the community colleges remained aloof from the stateâs 25 technical schools but now they are all part of the brand-new Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Wethington opposed the change, arguing that UK control of the community colleges made it easier for students to transfer from one system to another (there is scant evidence of that) and to transmit
Related information

Higher Education in Kentucky

1996 Enrollment

  • Doctoral institutions (University of Kentucky and University of Louisville): 45,081
  • Regional universities (Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky State, Morehead State, Murray State, Northern Kentucky and Western Kentucky): 60,583
  • Community colleges: 43,674
  • Technical schools: 16,292
  • Total enrollment: 165,630

Full-time faculty and staff
(fall 1996)

  • Universities: 21,250
  • Community colleges: 2,300

In-state undergraduate tuition

  • University of Kentucky and University of Louisville: $1,200 per semester
  • Regional universities: $900 per semester
  • Community colleges: $510 per semester

State spending on higher education

1997ö1998: $895.5 million÷15.4 percent of state general fund

new technology and research findings to business and industry. Some community college leaders sided with the UK president.

However, Governor Patton and many of his allies in the business community believed that a single system, combining the community colleges and technical schools, would better serve Kentuckyâs economic needs. They prevailed.

ãWe must, over time, break the dependence on political power to make higher education decisions,ä Patton crowed after winning a fierce battle that included campaign-style television and radio commercials by both sides.

The University of Kentucky used free air time it receives in return for athletic broadcasting rights to run TV and radio ads touting the virtues of the community colleges and their link to UK.

Some 60-second radio spots began with the UK fight song, followed by discordant music, during which an announcer said there was a ãschemeä in Frankfort, ãconceived in part by an out-of-state consultantä (McGuinness) to deny community college students a UK degree and ãdestroy their pride in being part of UK.ä

A University of Kentucky newspaper ad asked readers if they would like to trade their UK sweat shirts for one emblazoned with ãKentucky Community and Technical College,ä the name of Pattonâs proposed system. ãNo? Didnât think so.ä

At the menâs basketball Final Four in Indianapolis last March, when the University of Kentucky came close to repeating as national champions, students handed out lapel buttons saying, ãKeep Us 1. UK and our community colleges.ä

Patton was furious. In an unprecedented confrontation, he attended a UK Board of Trustees meeting just after the basketball tournament and gave Wethington a tongue-lashing in front of his bosses.

Patton bristled at Wethingtonâs suggestions that the governor would not make good on his promises of extra funding to build UKâs research capabilities. ãI do not believe it is incumbent on the president of this university to question the sincerity of the governor of this commonwealth,ä he said. ãI am personally offended·so, ladies and gentlemen, I have a problem with this university.ä

Patton sought support from presidents of the other state universities and got it, trotting them out to endorse his plan on the same day that he traveled to Lexington to confront Wethington and the Board of Trustees.

With a special legislative session to consider the higher education reforms little more than a month away, the governor began to hold one-on-one meetings with UK trustees. He attended a UK faculty meeting, to try to divide Wethingtonâs internal base of support. And he urged alumni of the University of Louisville and the regional universities to write their legislators in support of the plan.

House Democratic leader Greg Stumbo, who backed UK in the controversy, accused the governor of offering uncommitted legislators road work in their districts and influence in state hiring in return for their votes. Although Patton denied it at the time, several lawmakers have said since the special session ended that Patton, in the run-up to the session, had asked them what they needed in their districts.

In the end, to avoid a close vote in the House of Representatives, Patton made a few concessions to Wethington and Stumbo.

The community colleges would retain the University of Kentucky name, which would appear on degrees and certificates, but operation of all but one of the 14 colleges would be turned over to the new Kentucky Community and Technical College System. UK would continue to run the community college on its own campus.

UK trustees will have a voice in selecting community college presidents but no stronger a voice than that of the governor and his appointees to the new board.

In another compromise, Patton retreated from his original idea that all institutions in a given sector (research universities, regionals and two-year colleges) should compete for the incentive money. Instead, each is guaranteed a set amount of the total pool, at least for the first couple of years.

With these changes, the plan was approved by both houses÷76 to 24 in the House of Representatives, 23 to 15 in the Senate.

If passage of the reforms was a bitter pill for the University of Kentucky, it was good news for the University of Louisville. ãThere was ambiguity when I came here,ä said Louisvilleâs President John Shumaker. ãThe University of Louisville was perceived as an urban regional. This plan puts it to rest. There are now two research universities, with complementary missions.ä

Having suffered a major political defeat, will the University of Kentucky try to sabotage the plan? So far, President Wethington, 61, whose contract runs through June 2001, is talking cooperation and is avoiding open collisions with the governor. Partly, that is because his board has sued for peace.

In mid-August, Patton met with UK Board Chairman Edward T. Breathitt, a former governor, and cited staff-level concerns that Wethington was sulking and was not giving the new plan a chance to succeed. A few days later, Patton summoned Wethington and Breathitt to breakfast and informed Wethington he wanted him to continue as president, but only if he would enthusiastically implement the reform legislation.

ãThis whole thing was a wake-up call because we wound up with every higher education institution in the state against us and the (state) Chamber (of Commerce) against us,ä Breathitt said in an interview.

He is pushing UK faculty members to speed their work on a new strategic plan for the university, and is nudging Wethington to rebuild bridges to various alienated groups as well as to other campuses.

ãWe can pout, and Charles can have a miserable, unproductive period as he winds up his presidency, or we can get with the program,ä Breathitt said. ãWeâre going to do that, and maintain UK as the flagship university.ä

But much depends on Governor Pattonâs ability to come up with the money to lift UK into prominence among research universities, as well as to pay for the other improvements envisioned in the plan. If he cannot, then Wethington and others will feel justified in dragging their feet.

ãWe may have driven our expectations further than we have·provided the fuel to carry ourselves,ä said Supreme Court Justice Walter Baker, a Harvard-educated Republican and former state senator who has been appointed by Patton to the new Council on Postsecondary Education.

It is much too early to know if the new Council on Postsecondary Education will turn out to be the effective planning and coordinating body that Patton hopes it will be.

How good will its budget recommendations be, and will the governor and Legislature accept them? Can the council restrain the expansionist tendencies of some institutions and prevent campus presidents from making private deals with the Legislature? Will campuses make good use of the new incentive funds to improve efficiency and productivity?

ãThe real test of these reorganizations is six to nine months out,ä Aims McGuinness said. ãThen weâll know if the right people are getting together and if theyâre working on the right things.ä

Robert T. Garrett is a public policy reporter and political columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.

Photos by Stewart Bowman for CrossTalk

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