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Political Passages
The relationship of politics and higher education

By Elaine H. Hairston

AT ITS 1997 ANNUAL MEETING, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Organization (SHEEO) honored six of its departing colleagues who represent, collectively, more than 100 years of experience in leading higher education systems in America. The states of Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia all have had long-serving SHEEOs, an unusual fact in todayâs climate of shorter tenures among higher education leaders both at the state level and on campuses.

Those with the longest service, like Ken Ashworth of Texas, Gordon Davies of Virginia, Wayne Richey of Iowa, and Dick Wagner of Illinois, have helped formulate the actual role of the SHEEO with respect to campus heads and the body politic, after, in the case of some states, being legislatively inserted to mediate between the two.

In the normal course of events, leadership changes are to be expected, and even welcomed for their potential to reinvigorate the organization. Yet, in some higher education corners there is a distinct air of caution that the position of the SHEEO is being subjected to inappropriate political influence. There are a number of observers of the higher education scene who believe that political leaders are unduly intruding into the responsibilities of their state higher education boards, and they are uneasy about it.

These concerns, coupled with the turnover of more than 20 percent of all state higher education leadership positions within this academic year, made me recall the service of John D. Millett, the first chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents. Formerly president of Miami University for 11 years, Dr. Millett served as chancellor of the board in its formative years from 1964 to 1972.

Upon the conclusion of that time, he authored ãPolitics and Higher Education,ä an analysis of the position of higher education vis-à-vis state government. Re-reading this book as I conclude my eight-year tenure as chancellor of the board was like talking to a fellow traveler. From the perspectives of both a pathfinding chancellor and a current one, the relationship of politics and higher education is a very important matter indeed.

First, let me distinguish between politics and partisanship. Public higher education by its very nature is a creature of the state, established for service to the people. It is a political instrumentality and operates always within the larger political construct. It neither could exist nor thrive without political will.

On the contrary, partisanship, as it might appear in higher education matters, reflects only smaller, self-interested purposes and is, therefore, antithetical to the reason underlying public support for higher education. When John Millett speaks of politics, he is dealing with the constructive context, as am I.

The role of every SHEEO is inherently political. As Millett wrote: ãAs a professional in the field of higher education, I thought of myself first of all as a person competent to advise the governor and the General Assembly of Ohio about what was needed, what was desirable, and what was practical in providing higher education services to the people of Ohio. But such advice entailed more than just technical competence. It involved matters of great political importance, of value judgments, of social goals. I never found a comfortable distinction between politics and professionalism in my eight years as chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents.ä

This critical advisory role was the reason most state boards of higher education were created. General assemblies across this country needed professional expertise to guide them in making the huge investments required in the expansion and maturing of higher education systems in their states.

These are delegated powers, and when the body politic believes that bounds have been exceeded, they can, and usually do, intervene. Such interventions, when they rest on the larger public purposes, form a rational check in government; when they are born of narrow interests, they can damage higher education in significant ways.

My sense is that what worries todayâs higher education observers is that some SHEEOs have been prevented from doing exactly this inherently political function in its larger and best senseöthat their professional and carefully formed judgments have been nullified or countermanded directly. Fortunately, such instances still remain so unusual as to call immediate attention to themselves, but they are cause for concern and watchfulness.

Though the SHEEOâs role is inherently political, there is a catchöa big one. The SHEEO has no inherent political constituencyönor does higher education. As state budgets feel the pressure of growing demands by schools, prisons, Medicaid and other areas, legislatures have historically dipped their hands into higher educationâs pocket to pay the bill. When higher education seeks supportive partners, it comes face to face with its own reality: Higher education is not an effective developer of political power.

My view of this issue is more optimistic than my predecessorâs, however. During this past year in Ohio, despite a disappointing administrationâs budget proposal for higher education, the Ohio higher education community was able to forge close partnerships among the Board of Regents, trustees and campus presidents to speak with one voice throughout the legislative process and with a message that the business community could support.

Together, we achieved a new approach to state funding for higher education that will serve students well even as it will help higher education tell its positive stories for many years to come.

John Millett leaves us with a last thought about the role of the SHEEO in the political arena: ãHigher education must have political spokesmenöspokesmen who understand the glory of higher education but can talk the language of practical politics, spokesmen who seek great ends while pursuing reasonable and ethical compromise. Moreover, these spokesmen must have support, not continued criticism, because they are not perfect in word or deed.ä

Those who speak for higher education in the 21st Century, whether as SHEEOs, presidents, regents or trustees, will be called upon to act for the common good amid growing tendencies to partisanship.

May they be good politicians as well.

Elaine Hairston has been chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents for the last eight years, and will retire in December.

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