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Blue-Ribbon Commissions Across the Nation


BLUE-RIBBON higher education commissions, like the Tennessee Council on Excellence, are currently in vogue around the country. California, Oregon, Washington, Louisiana and Virginia are among the states that have appointed high-profile groups to study the needs and problems of postsecondary education.

In California, the Citizens’ Commission on Higher Education has recommended changes in admissions policies, financing of public higher education and governance of the state’s 106 community colleges, among other proposals. The commission’s main concern has been finding ways to cope with an expected increase of about 500,000 additional students in California higher education over the next decade.

John Slaughter
John Slaughter, president of Occidental College, in Los Angeles, is co-chairman of the California Citizens’ Commission.
The citizens’ group, financed by private foundations, has been meeting for more than a year under the co-chairmanship of Harold Williams, former president of the J. Paul Getty Trust and also a former University of California regent, and John Slaughter, president of Occidental College and former chancellor of the University of Maryland system.

"Actual policy change is our goal," said William H. Pickens, executive director of the commission, "either statutory or in the policies of governing boards." The group also hopes to make support for higher education an issue in the election for governor next November.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber appointed a Task Force on Higher Education and the Economy after the state’s high tech firms complained that they had to go out of state to hire trained people because the Oregon public higher education system was not meeting their needs.

Kitzhaber picked outsiders to scrutinize higher education because "you don’t go out and seek change from people inside the system," said Danny Santos, a policy adviser to the governor.

The task force has recommended sweeping changes, including a proposal that state appropriations be tied directly to student enrollment and to other state needs. Public colleges and universities would be encouraged to compete and collaborate through decentralization of authority and institutional autonomy.

California Citizens' Commission on Higher Education
The California Citizens’ Commission on Higher Education met in March to draft its final report.
Kitzhaber welcomed the report and warned the higher education community that "it is not my intention to pit my will against the will of this system—although I would not shrink from doing so if I felt it was unavoidable."

In the State of Washington, Governor Gary Locke has named a high-level group to study the state’s higher education needs, not in the immediate future but a quarter century from now.

Jack Creighton, retired Chief Executive officer of the Weyerhaueser Company, and Bob Craves, senior vice president of Costco, a discount chain, will head the "2020 Commission," which, the governor said, is "to leap over the problems of today and focus on the needs of our state in the year 2020."


"If that long-term vision upsets the apple cart of today’s higher education institutions, that’s okay," Locke said.

OTHER STATES:

Connecticut: The Board of Governors for higher education recently created an advisory council to "engage a broad public dialogue…in determining what changes will shape a system of higher education responsive to the needs of…the state, its citizens and its individual institutions."

The advisory group includes representatives from private industry, the legislature and the governor’s office, as well as from higher education.

Illinois: The Board of Higher Education, the state planning and coordinating agency, will conduct its own "master plan" review of the state’s higher education systems. This began as an exploration of the need for a new four-year campus in the suburbs north of Chicago but has broadened into a statewide inquiry.

Louisiana: A citizens’ commission recommended this year that a separate system be created for most of the state’s two-year community and technical colleges, which now are administered by Louisiana State University, Southern University and the state board of education. A state constitutional amendment to create the new system has been approved by the legislature and now goes to the voters.

Maryland: The speaker of the House and the Senate president have proposed a 21-member task force to review the state’s 1988 public higher education charter. One of the contentious issues is a funding system that provides the same level of support for the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park as for all other public campuses.

The group also has been asked to look into complaints that the University of Maryland system duplicates the functions of individual campus administrations.

Oklahoma: The Citizens’ Commission on the Future of Oklahoma Higher Education, named in 1996, recommended a series of reforms, including financial incentives to promote the public interest; high quality distance education; targeted workforce development programs; and higher student fees, accompanied by increased financial aid. The Oklahoma Board of Regents has adopted the report but so far has funded only the distance education proposal.

South Carolina: a 12-member study group composed of legislators and business leaders, appointed by the legislature in 1995, recommended that the state shift to a 100 percent performance-based budgeting plan for public colleges and universities. Legislation to that effect was passed but implementation has proved to be difficult.

Virginia: Newly-elected Governor Jim Gilmore has announced his intention to name a blue-ribbon commission on higher education but not everyone in the state is convinced of the need for such a study.

"If you don’t want to do anything, you study it for three years," said Gordon Davies, who was forced out as director of the State Council of Higher Education after disagreements with former Governor George Allen and with Allen appointees to the council.

"This system has been restructured recently in a fundamental way," Davies said. "There’s not enough money for the institutions—this doesn’t need to be studied; it needs to be fixed."

William Doyle

Photos by Axel Koester for CrossTalk

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