Created in the 1920s to ensure the public interest, state boards of higher education were supposed to cut fat by eliminating unnecessary duplication, strengthening academic programs, keep overly ambitious institutions in check, achieve equitable financing and improve management.
Have they delivered on their promises? Absolutely not. During the past 20 years-plus, countless commissions, task forces, study groups and scholars have issued reports lamenting the costs, conditions, and offerings of higher education. Never have costs and quality been more intensely questioned by elected officials and by employers of college graduates.
In Florida, the House Education Committee is seeking balance between the Florida University System and 11 individual institutions. One retired college president said, "They don't need balancing, the system and the institutions should both go on a diet."
During recent years I have spoken with more than 500 college presidents, politicians, academics and college board members in all 50 states about how boards operate. Here are some of the problems they see:
State boards result in unnecessary layers of bureaucracy: In terms of time, money and initiative, the cost is heavy. In some states, it often takes three years or longer for a proposal for a new educational program even to be considered. System boards simply represent another layer of government bureaucracy.
Lewis Mayhew of Stanford University said, "I defy anyone to conclude that Berkeley, with a strong system board, is a better institution than the University of Michigan with none."
Decisions tend to be compromises: They often base budgets on a standard rate for instructional costs, even though such costs can differ significantly and legitimately among different types of institutions. This artificially strengthens the weak institutions and weakens the strong ones, particularly the comprehensive research universities. Many knowledgeable people believe most states are maintaining public institutions that should be cut back, merged or closed.