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Former BNSF executive returns for Round 2 of Board of Regents confirmation hearings

TOPEKA — Former BNSF Railway chief executive officer Carl Ice responded to a battery of questions Monday from members of the Senate Education Committee engaged in a follow-up review of Gov. Laura Kelly’s three nominees to the Kansas Board of Regents.

An interim Kansas Senate committee unanimously recommended in 2021 confirmation of Ice and fellow nominees Cynthia Lane and Wint Winter to the nine-member higher education board with oversight of more than 30 public state universities, community colleges and technical colleges. The three nominees have been serving as voting members of the Board of Regents for the past seven months.

Nominees to the Board of Regents are subject to confirmation of the full Senate. The second round of hearings was initiated after “additional information” was obtained about the candidates, said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

“The three nominees were sent back to the Senate Education Committee for review and recommendation,” Baumgardner said. “So, that is where we are today and why we are having this hearing.”

Ice was born in Topeka and graduated from Coffeyville Community College and Kansas State University. He began as an intern before rising to chief executive officer of BNSF Railway, the largest freight railroad network in North America with more than $20 billion in annual revenues and 35,000 employees. He retired in February 2020 and was named to the railway’s board of directors.

He said he was a supporter of the Board of Regents’ strategic plan to build upon the higher education assets in Kansas. This educational pipeline, he said, should equip the next generation with skills to thrive and contribute to a vibrant economy.

“Higher education has been a common thread throughout my live personally and professionally,” he said. “I believe people want to do things that are relevant and important. I believe when people have been blessed with the ability to do something, they have the responsibility to do that.”

Ice was questioned about his thoughts on lowering the cost of higher education, the economic development potential of higher education and college students who declined to be vaccinated for COVID-19. He was quizzed about BNSF’s corporate culture and compensation of women and minority employees at the company.

Baumgardner raised the lightning-rod issue of critical race theory, which has been used politically as a catch-all term to describe criticism of the educational system’s alleged indoctrination of students. In an academic sense, critical race theory has centered on the idea of ​​institutional racism could be used as a lens into American history and the dominance of white people in American society.

“You indicated that you know that was a topic that was important in education,” Baumgardner said. “Could you talk to us a little bit more about CRT?”

Ice said the subject was a popular topic of public debate, but the Board of Regents hadn’t conducted extensive conversations about critical race theory. He said prior to his arrival, the Board of Regents issued a statement affirming support for freedom of expression. He endorsed that constitutional right to freedom of speech.

“Sometimes when one engages and forms a perspective then we don’t all agree and there’s conflict,” Ice said. “I think, in that conflict, is the opportunity for us all to learn the most.”

Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora, said she was concerned universities and community colleges were building “palacial” campuses at the same time leaders of those institutions were urging the Legislature to increase appropriations. Taxpayers have reservations about public colleges and universities spending “unnecessarily” and shared a desire for cutbacks to control costs, she said.

Ice was questioned by Sen. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, about whether he had been the subject of a lawsuit or played a role in political campaigns. Ice said he hadn’t been personally sued and had contributed to national campaigns, but not races for Kansas Senate.

Sen. Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood, said she had heard complaints from students who were “treated differently” because of their refusal to take a COVID-19 vaccination. She also asserted some students were offered extra credit for showing proof of vaccination.

In response, Ice said he’d want to learn more about details of those situations and said “facts and circumstances always matter.”

“We’d very much want to engage with the institutions. There’s oftentimes two sides to a story,” Ice said.

Lane, the former superintendent of public schools in Kansas City, Kansas, is scheduled to appear before the Senate committee Tuesday, while the former banker and Republican state Sen. Win Winter has been scheduled for Wednesday.

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