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Checks and Balances at Work:
The Restructuring of Virginia's Public Higher Education System

  Executive Summary

The nation's higher education community is watching, waiting with anticipation to see the outcome of Virginia's 2005 Restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act (Restructuring Act), which amounts to a significant renegotiation of the relationship between the Commonwealth of Virginia and its renowned public colleges and universities. In an era that values small government, competition, and private enterprise, this renegotiation seems to some a logical update to an outdated system; to others it represents an ominous sign of changes that are spreading throughout society now reaching the once-protected world of higher education. Onlookers are, of course, all the more fascinated because of the historical significance of tinkering with Thomas Jefferson's universities.

In what many described as "an evolutionary process," two parallel initiatives came together to create the Restructuring Act. The three most powerful public institutions in the state—the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University—were advancing a proposal to become "chartered universities," a status that would have given these institutions far more autonomy over their daily operations. Among other things, charter status would have reasserted the institutions' right to set their own tuitions, and the universities would no longer have been traditional state agencies. Instead, they would have become "political subdivisions" of the state. At the same time, Governor Mark Warner (D) was working with a group of Virginia leaders and higher education experts to develop an agenda to reform higher education in the state.

As the two initiatives came together, key stakeholders, including legislators and their staffs, other college presidents, college faculty and staff, and the governor's cabinet, all got involved and put their wants and needs on the table. The end result is legislation that includes every public college in the state, and ensures that all public institutions remain state agencies. All public colleges and universities are now eligible for three differentiated levels of increased autonomy, but not without first agreeing to meet a series of 11 specific performance goals that address state needs, such as access to higher education, collaboration with K–12 education, increased student transfers between two- and four-year colleges, and more deliberate and strategic planning.* The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) will assess the colleges' performance in meeting these goals annually. If SCHEV deems an institution successful at meeting the state goals, the institution will be eligible for a series of financial incentives as well.

What can this grand experiment teach us? What might it mean for public higher education around the country? Perhaps Virginia's secretary of finance John Bennett said it best when he quoted President John F. Kennedy: "For of those to whom much is given, much is required." In Virginia, autonomy came at the price of accountability for explicit performance goals that will be regularly assessed. To some, the final legislation's accountability requirements are an unfortunate result that the institutions did not anticipate. To others, the requirements are the natural result of a healthy give-and-take between a governor, a Legislature, and a public system of higher education.

This legislation and the path taken during its passage are, in a sense, checks and balances at work. The public colleges in Virginia gained more power to conduct certain operations, but their power is checked by new accountability targeted directly at the needs of the state. The legislation reasserts the institutions' ability to set tuition, but the Legislature did not give up all power to curb tuition increases in the future. A new planning process helps the institutions lay out their needs for both state funding and tuition increases, making the state's role as a funding partner clear and helping to create mutual accountability for meeting educational needs in the future.

Many have speculated about what Thomas Jefferson would think of these changes at his university, his alma mater, and his home state's public education system. We'll never know, but he would likely be proud of the way that the government he helped to design, which is based in large part on a theory of checks and balances, negotiated the wants and needs of a variety of stakeholders while keeping the public good at the forefront.

* As of the writing of this case study, legislation to add a twelfth performance goal has passed the Virginia House and Senate. As stated in the bill, the goal will read: "Seek to ensure the safety and security of the Commonwealth's students on college and university campuses." Virginia HB 346 Restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act; Includes Campus Security, January 11, 2006, (February 13, 2006).


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