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


The history of public higher education in the United States could, we believe, be told in terms of conflict among its many interested participants. From the Dartmouth College case in 1819 to the proliferation of state coordinating agencies following World War II, an almost perennial tug-of-war has existed between the states and their colleges and universities: the states seeking more control over their institutions, and these institutions seeking greater autonomy. Sometimes the state prevailed, sometimes the institutions, but some might argue that these tensions have contributed to today's worldwide predominance of some of our institutions. A crucial question remains, however: Might higher education be better served if both sides pulled together toward common goals?

How one state and its institutions realigned their efforts in order to pull together is told by Lara Couturier in this important report. She relates in detail how an almost routine conflict in 2002 over who should set tuition in the Commonwealth of Virginia stimulated a statewide discussion of institutional management and accountability in the broad context of public purposes and priorities, and how that discussion yielded an almost unprecedented broad legislative "reconstruction" of Virginia's public higher education system in 2005.

The story, thus far, exemplifies both the substantive and political complexities that vex major efforts to redefine state and institutional roles, as well as the creative strategies that evolved to deal with those complexities. The resulting groundbreaking legislation promises now to serve as a valuable framework for eliciting measurable institutional progress toward explicit public policy goals in exchange for a state commitment to funding and institutional autonomy in certain key areas.

The final chapter of this story has yet to be written, and higher education's experience with state contracts is not encouraging. Nevertheless, we strongly urge that political and educational policy leaders across the nation carefully examine and continue to monitor the evolution of Virginia's reconstruction efforts. The need in all states for colleges and universities to be accountable for public policy goals has never been greater. At the same time, colleges and universities need an appropriate degree of flexibility in the means by which they achieve these goals. Ms. Couturier's report lays a firm foundation for understanding and continuing to follow the attempt to meet both these needs in one state, and offers a possible model for future attempts.

We are grateful to Lara Couturier for her valuable contribution to the national discourse on the changing relationships between the states and their colleges and universities. We appreciate the direction of several higher education experts in Virginia who reviewed an early draft of this report: Peter Blake, Vice Chancellor for Workforce Development Services, Virginia Community College System; Laura Fornash, Associate Director of Government Relations, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Judith E. Heiman, Deputy Secretary of Education, Commonwealth of Virginia; and Elizabeth A. Wallace, Director of Communications and Government Relations, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. We also thank the following policy experts who reviewed an early draft: Richard Novak, Vice President for Public Sector Programs, Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges; Jane V. Wellman, Senior Associate, the Institute for Higher Education Policy; and William M. Zumeta, Senior Fellow, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The National Center and the author welcome the reactions of readers to this report.

Patrick M. Callan

Joni E. Finney


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