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A Complex Relationship
State coordination and governance of higher education


By Aims C. McGuinness, Jr.

HOW TO SHAPE the structures and policies for an increasingly market-driven, technology-intensive postsecondary education system will be one of the most important challenges of the next decade. Other challenges that today are testing state structures will likely continue well into the next century: the instability in state government leadership, a weakening consensus about the basic purposes of public higher education, and growing political control and ideological involvement in state coordination and governance.

It is time for states to step back and examine the relevance for the next century of structures formed for an earlier time. Some structures are still relevant. Others have long outlived their usefulness.

Governing boards of public institutions were modeled after the lay boards of private nonprofit colleges and universities which, in nearly all instances, govern single institutions. Perhaps for this reason, many people retain an impression that the pattern of a single board for a single institution is dominant in American public higher education.

In reality, 65 percent of the students in American public higher education attend campuses that are elements of multi-campus or consolidated systems of multiple campuses all under a single governing board.

ãStatewide coordinationä is the term commonly used to describe the formal policies and other mechanisms that states employ to ensure that their postsecondary systems are aligned with state priorities and together serve the public interest. Coordinating functions have evolved over the years as the publicâs expectations of postsecondary education have changed and as the underlying philosophy regarding the role of government has changed.

There are fundamental differences, for example, in the philosophical underpinnings of governmental policy between the 1960s and early 1970s, when many states established new postsecondary education structures, and the period of the 1980s and beyond, when centralized, rational planning and management approaches were displaced by more market-driven ãstrategic investmentä approaches.

In the decade of the â80s, the roles of state higher education boards shifted in fundamental ways as governors and legislators took far more aggressive positions regarding the quality of higher education. The call for reform added new responsibilities to state boards and, as a consequence, heightened the potential for state/institutional conflict.

The policy environment changed dramatically by 1990. As the economic crisis of the late 1980s intensified, state leaders added a new urgency to questions about the performance and productivity of higher education. The recession period of 1989 to 1991 became a key turning point for the state role in higher education. In these new conditions, many initiatives enacted just a few years before changed direction or were put on hold.

As states slowly emerged from the recession, they entered into a new period of uncertainty in terms of their relationships with higher education. New policies began to emerge, accompanied by a new and more penetrating questioning about the underlying efficiency of the postsecondary enterprise. Questions about faculty workload and faculty commitment to undergraduate teaching dominated legislative agendas. And states showed a new willingness to pursue aggressive policies, including the establishment of systems of ãperformance indicators,ä and new financing policies that allocated a portion of state funding based on performance.

The 1994 midterm elections changed the political landscape, adding further uncertainty and instability to already tense relationships between states and higher education. State coordination was made more challenging by the election of governors and legislators with more conservative views about the role of government and education, by the changes in legislative control, and by the success of state referenda or initiatives to limit taxes or change policies.

At first glance, the changes of the 1991÷97 period appear to be a series of unrelated, disparate actions reflecting the politics and unique circumstances in each state. A closer examination, however, reveals several common themes and issues. The scope and intensity of the changes across the states suggest that new and deeper forces also are at work:


Instability in state government leadership.
State coordination, as it evolved in the mid-1900s, presumed a degree of stability in the structure and leadership of state government. One could easily identify a small number of key leaders in each state who were responsible for shaping the structures established in the 1960s and 1970s. The continuing success of the structure depended on the ability of these people to remind each generation of political leaders about why the structure was formed and the basic values that should guide state-institutional relationships.

Today, few of those who shaped the current structures are around. Many have passed away. Others have retired from public life or have been swept out of office by the drive for term limits and the shift in political control. The extent of political turnover following the 1994 midterm elections led to the quip that, ãRepresenting higher education to the state Legislature is like making a speech to a parade.ä A broader public questioning of representative government underlies the public pressure for term limits, for restrictions on the length of legislative sessions, and for initiatives and referenda.

All these changes make the task of developing a constructive relationship between the state government and higher education far more complex and problematic. To the extent that the public sees state higher education agencies as ãjust another element of the state bureaucracy,ä the agencies are vulnerable to the same disdain as government overall.


A weakening consensus about the basic purposes of public higher education.
In the 1970s and 1980s a remarkable consensus existed across political parties and states about the basic goals of public higher education systems. In most master plans one could find references to a common set of goals. Most referred to access and equal opportunity, diversity, and the importance of higher education to the stateâs economic development and the well-being of its citizens.

This consensus about purposes and values is quickly disappearing. The major trend in state policy since the early 1980s has been to emphasize outcomes, assessment and links between higher education and the economy. Now, political controversies about outcomes-based education and ãschool-to-workä programs in K-12 reform are spilling over into debates about higher education policy.

Growing political control and ideological involvement in state coordination and governance.
The previous two issues are undermining the credibility of state boards as sources of independent, objective analysis and policymaking. A state boardâs strength can be measured, in part, by its ability to develop a consensus among the stateâs leadership around a long-term agenda. It can also be measured by the boardâs ability to sustain that agenda over several political cycles.

In the past decade, several states modified their structures to give governors a more direct role in appointing either the state board chairs or the executive officers. The price for increased responsiveness in the short-term, however, is the potential for a high degree of instability as political leaders and priorities change.


Trend toward boards dominated by representatives of internal constituencies and a decline in ãlayä membership.
In the early stages of coordination in the 1950s and 1960s, many boards included both lay members and institutional representatives. Toward the end of the 1960s, however, many states either removed institutional representatives or reduced the number to ensure a lay majority.

The changes in the past decade reflect a shift back to the conception of ãrepresentativeä boards. In New Jersey, South Carolina and Arkansas, governance changes since 1994 have added representatives of institutional governing boards to the coordinating boards. The boards in New Jersey and Arkansas are legally obligated to seek the advice, if not the consensus, of institutional leaders on key policy decisions.


Impact of an increasingly market-driven, technology-intensive postsecondary education system.
There are a number of characteristics of the evolving system that are straining current structures. Changes in the way higher education is delivered will require a fundamental rethinking of traditional state higher education board functions.

It will be difficult to assign missions, identify unnecessary duplication or approval programs based on geographic service areas. Funding policies based on credit-hour production, and quality assurance measures based on traditional institutional characteristics and accreditation will not longer be feasible. Data and reporting systems that assume that most students attend only one or two traditional institutions will be obsolete.

These several issues exemplify the kinds of challenges that will face states well into the next century. As emphasized at the beginning of this essay, these problems will require fundamental rethinking about state structures and about state policy as a whole.

State coordination of higher education is the most complex, difficult balancing act in state government. There are no simple answers, no absolutes. While lessons can be drawn from other states, there is no perfect model. Conflicts are the reality. The challenge is to resolve those conflicts as close to the operating level (e.g., at the campus level or through cooperation among campuses), and as close to the real problems, as possible.

Once issues rise to the level of the governor and legislature, political as opposed to educational values tend to dominate the debate. Finally, what worked at one point, with one set of actors, may not work at another point.

Systems designed for an earlier time are unlikely to be adequate for the challenges of the next century.

Aims C. McGuinness, Jr. is Senior Associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, in Boulder, Colorado.

This article was excerpted from the State Postsecondary Education Structures Source Book. Denver: Education Commission of the States (Fall 1997).

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