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Future Shock

Increased Accountability or Political Powergrab?

University Business, May 2012

Here we are at Sox Spring Training, listening to fans complain about tuition debt, a burden for which the promise of spring baseball brings little comfort. States are rethinking their higher education systems—unifying control of what some see as unwieldy public systems. Restructurings can result in non-duplication of programs, cost avoidance, and profit improvement­.

But for campus-based faculty and staff, the reality is that governance becomes even more political as it moves the decision-making process further away from campus stakeholders. In state after state, the evidence suggests the public higher education centralization process works best when it is collegial, well-planned, volitional, and bottom up. Through joint degree programs, cross registration, co-curricular activities, library networking, and collective procurement, higher education insiders intuit that public systems can be more productive, without the disruptive impact of creating yet another artificial layer of bureaucracy.

In his State of the State speech, Massachusetts’s Governor Deval Patrick threw down the gauntlet when he bellowed, "[Community colleges] must be aligned with employers…aligned with each other in core course offerings; and aligned with the Commonwealth’s job growth strategy. We can’t do that if 15 different campuses have 15 different strategies." In thoughtful response, the state’s community college leaders lauded the Governor’s overall goals as well intended. Yet, in their considered perspective, these goals are best met by incentivizing institutional performance, innovation, and regional workforce connectivity.

By way of example, in Ohio, Chancellor Jim Petro put it this way, "Ohio’s universities are a driver of economic development in the state. By allowing our universities to be free from mandates and operate as an enterprise of the state, Ohioans gain increased efficiency, effectiveness, and competitiveness that will help drive our 21st century economy."

For its part, the State University of New York system encouraged its public colleges and universities to collaborate by developing shared services – win-win collaborations. Rather than a shotgun wedding of incompatible public college partners, in her State of the University speech, Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, put SUNY’s goal nicely, "Systemness is the coordination of multiple components that when working together create a network of activity that is more powerful than any action of individual parts on their own."

Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder spoke about his commitment to incentivize in higher learning outcomes – as the Governor put it, "Universities … get 3 percent more if they hold 2012-13 tuition increases to 4 percent or less; and raise the total number of undergraduate degrees awarded, number of degrees earned in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, and the number of low-income students receiving Pell Grants who graduate."

Reflecting on New Jersey’s public higher education system decentralization of 25 years ago, former state higher education chief executive officer, Martine Paludan, put it candidly, “The reorganized system gave all institutional sectors a meaningful voice. Before, larger institutions had a greater voice and undue influence.Over time, economies of scale and efficiencies were realized through the reduction in size of the coordinating (commission) staff." The bottom line in New Jersey is that community colleges and universities now educate, and coordinate their missions collegially, voluntarily, and intentionally.

Or, take by way of example Connecticut, where the State University system and the Community Colleges recently conflated under the governance of a single board. Connecticut’s Commissioner of Higher Education, Michael Meotti put it this way, “The restructuring will create savings to benefit campuses and students in the short run and over the long term will be a better governance structure to achieve the goals everyone wants." What is essentially different for Connecticut is that the new governing board will hopefully serve as an advocate and not a constraining gatekeeper.

In Oregon, the legislature mandated a study on the potential consolidation of the Oregon Health Science University and Portland State University. For Oregonians, in the end, the upshot of the study was to develop voluntary, collegial, mission-complementary partnerships between OHSU and PSU.

Having visited several states where the public higher education centralization ball is in play, one gets a lingering sense that these states share a common core – leveraging economies of scale to accelerate academic success of students through creative strategic partnerships. Hopefully, policymakers will scrutinize these centralization plans to ensure a proper balance of governance by incentivizing nimbleness, while preserving campus level managerial and academic autonomy.