Whitesburg KY
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Don’t botch it

The casual way in which Senate President David Williams dismisses the prospect of ending the Bucks for Brains program is sad to see and to hear.

Sen. Williams is resentful of the caustic tone and personal nature of some criticism that he has received, since mutating from progressive Republican lawmaker to obstructionist Senate martinet. However, he invites strong reaction with his blasé treatment of what certainly is a real state revenue crisis.

He heard Gov. Steve Beshear’s revenue warnings, then purred, “There are always challenges in the budget process, but I don’t particularly think this is a crisis. It’s an opportunity for state government to tighten its belt.…”

The presidents of Kentucky’s public universities are speaking in unison for a change, predicting dire consequences if the current Beshear budget cuts become a new biennial base, much less if worstcase 12 percent cuts are piled on top of those. They are right to speak up, of course, but their alarums gave Sen. Williams an opening to raise a false choice: If basic operating budgets are so important, he says, then Bucks for Brains “might be something we have to put off for the future.”

But in a sense, Bucks for Brains is the future.

The Council on Postsecondary Education proposes spending $200 million on this public-private matching gift program, with $100 million set aside for the University of Kentucky, which has the biggest array of doctoral and research programs; $50 million for the University of Louisville, and the rest split among the other public institutions. It has begun to create a culture of giving to public higher education like that in other progressive states. It’s not as important, in a narrow sense, as operating money, but it’s symbolic of Kentucky’s commitment to a higher education system that’s competitive in the information era.

Star faculty, exactly like star athletes, can go where they want. And, like great three-point shooters and pocket passers, they won’t go where they see no future.

Faculty recruiting cycles are multi-year exercises when you chase real stars, as U of L and UK have. But when you catch the good ones, they bring grant money with them, labs with them, researchers with them, investigators with them, top graduate students with them, prestige with them – all in all, a broad uplift in academic ambition and achievement.

Casual talk about cuts in Bucks for Brains, much less in campus operating budgets, will damage the momentum that has been developed in pursuit of House Bill 1’s historic goals. Shrugging off the problem as an opportunity for belt-tightening is shrugging off the future of Kentucky’s young folks.

– The Courier-Journal, Louisville

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