By Paul E. Lingenfelter
Executive Director, State Higher Education Executive Officers
A paradox lies at the heart of this discussion of higher education and the public agenda. What legitimate institutional interests exist other than serving the public? How could a state have a public agenda that is at odds with the interests of its colleges and universities? Are not both states and institutions equally required to pursue the public agenda?
The problem, of course, lies in deciding exactly what is the public interest. In simplest terms, the role of a statewide higher education coordinating or governing board is to help states and institutions figure that out. State policymakers and institutions of higher education work in environments that have different incentives, constraints, and requirements. Quite naturally, they view the public interest from different perspectives.
While education is clearly not a "branch" of government, most states have established higher education governing or coordinating boards to provide some measure of separation between government and the operation of schools, colleges, and universities. These structures are only occasionally granted full constitutional autonomy, but they serve a clear purpose: to provide a degree of professional autonomy to educators, helping to insulate them from short-term pressures of the political process. Such professional autonomy is limited and conditional; it is granted because it is essential for building institutions that over the long haul will serve the public interest.
State governing or coordinating boards have a single focus-good public policy for higher education-and they are less likely to be distracted by responsibilities for institutional governance or the supervision of management. They provide a buffer between the political process and institutional operations; this buffer contributes to the protection of academic freedom and to the flexibility required for effective institutional management. Most importantly, these kinds of state boards have an unambiguous responsibility to articulate and pursue the public interest and a public agenda for higher education, working with political leaders, but not as part of the partisan political process.
In specific situations, both institutions and elected officials will want the board to be on their side unambiguously. Elected officials will want a compliant board when things are tough. And institutions will want the board to be a strong advocate for their needs.
An effective board must be perceived as partially on everyone's side, but wholly on the side of the best possible outcomes for the state in the higher education arena. This means that the board will challenge elected officials to do their very best on behalf of the public interest in higher education, and it will challenge institutions to do their very best on behalf of the public. Ideally, both elected officials and institutions will be willing to tolerate those challenges because the board adds expertise and good information to the process of developing policy. While it is rarely easy to do so, the board can obtain support from both elected officials and institutions by demonstrating a willingness to listen carefully to all perspectives in the process, by contributing to mutual understanding, by effectively expressing opinions based on the professional expertise of its staff and the board's independent judgment, by responding promptly and professionally to the requests of elected officials, and, at the end of the day, by implementing the decisions of duly elected public officials, whether or not they reflect perfectly the board's own views.
State coordinating or governing boards exist to assure that the conditional professional autonomy granted to colleges and universities achieves its purpose: developing and sustaining strong institutions that serve the public agenda. State boards are not infallible, and their powers are limited both by the law and by the practical limits of governing and coordinating institutions. But the importance of their role should not be underestimated. Both the effectiveness of higher education in meeting public needs and the preservation of professional autonomy depend on good state boards.