State Context
Higher Education in South Dakota
Two New Processes for Policy-Driven Change
Changes Initiated in Higher Education
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South Dakota
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Two New Processes for Policy-Driven Change

In the context of flat or decreased enrollment projections for four-year institutions, low faculty salaries, and an increased strain on state revenues, policymakers have been involved in creating policy-driven change in South Dakota higher education over the last several years. There have been many calls for change in South Dakota's postsecondary policy climate, some emanating from the state capitol, others driven from within higher education itself. The Legislature and governor have utilized various strategies, or levers, to influence higher education change: targeted appropriations to higher education; direct persuasion to encourage higher education to operate as a system and to collaborate; and, of course, legislation. Recent legislative actions have included moving away from a formula-based budgeting process and passing an articulation agreement to enhance transfer of students between the technical institutes and public universities.

According to one state representative, "We hope there will be movement toward more efficiency. ...We don't want institutions competing for the same students." These comments reflect the inclination of many state policymakers, who are pushing for more efficiency gains and increased collaboration among universities, technical institutes, and K-12 education. Higher education itself has taken action toward change as the Board of Regents has launched several initiatives. The system also is aiming to show the quality of its programs through standardized testing and revised admissions standards. That many of these changes are now well underway is in no small part attributable to the development of two processes in the state: the "roundtable" discussions, and the unification of the South Dakota University System. These processes have largely redefined how higher education leaders and policymakers implement action and plan for the future.

Some significant changes in South Dakota higher education, although the result of many events, have developed from a process that has helped move ideas toward actual implementation -- the "roundtable" discussions. Roundtables are used as a strategy for change in South Dakota, as a means of developing consensus on priorities and on the actions necessary to address those priorities. Initiated in 1995 by the Board of Regents, the roundtables brought leaders from different constituencies together for day-long discussions about state higher education issues. Participants in the South Dakota roundtables included business leaders, K-12 educators, higher education administrators, and policymakers. The initial roundtables were sponsored by the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Later roundtables were sponsored by the Board of Regents and by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). A total of 19 statewide roundtables have been held since the first in June 1995. The discussions were moderated by a third party to infuse the sessions with outside objectivity. Some roundtables specifically targeted policymakers or business constituents.

Participation in the roundtables -- including the governor and top legislative leaders -- could easily be described as successful. Virtually every interviewee mentioned the usefulness of the roundtable discussions, not only as a means of opening communication lines, but as a way of sharing ideas and information. A typical legislative comment was, "We may not have ended up agreeing on all of the issues, but at least we received a better understanding of higher education." One state senator's opinion that "the roundtables have helped us to talk about changes in the formula and budgeting processes" indicates that the roundtables not only generated dialogue but played a role in leading to change.

A number of legislators have become actively engaged in higher education issues mainly due to their participation in the board-initiated roundtables. Speaking of the roundtables, a state senator emphasized, "People came to improve education. What surprised [those who represented] education is that everyone was convinced of the need for higher education, but not everyone was sold on the product." Indeed, in a roundtable attended by nine legislators, policymakers said their educational priorities were: (1) kindergarten through grade 12; (2) technical institutes, partly because the graduates stay in the state; and (3) higher education (universities).

According to roundtable transcripts, part of the reason higher education was cited as the third priority was that legislators are not sure how the Board of Regents operates, and they know and understand less about higher education than about other sectors of education. One legislator said there is so much information flowing out of the Board of Regents that it "is sometimes difficult to understand and sometimes just too much to read."

It was clear from interviews with legislators, however, that the roundtables were successful in creating a basis for communication and understanding between higher education and state policymakers. Several comments from legislators -- such as, "The roundtables have been very important to arriving where we are at today," and, "The roundtables have created a basis for understanding among several parties," -- make it clear that much goodwill has been generated as a result of the roundtable process. A state senator who served as a co-convener to one roundtable captured what appears to be the most important role the dialogues have played in South Dakota higher education over the last four years: "Several of us have attended conferences in other states and seen that we all have the same problems. The difference is that we have gotten people in a room talking about the problems -- and I think that has helped us to initiate policy-driven change."

In some cases, the roundtables clearly produced agreement among state lawmakers and higher education officials. In other cases, such as with articulation between the state universities and the technical institutes, disagreement persists. In all cases, it seems that the roundtables were successful in putting issues on the table. A state senator summarized the value and influence of the roundtables by saying, "discussion came out, understanding came out, and differences of opinion came out; all of this was aired and put on the table, and this was healthy for higher education and policy in general." According to one observer of the system, the roundtable process has been effective in South Dakota because the executive director of SDUS has come to the roundtables with an agenda and has used the process as a "means of building consensus around that agenda."

According to most of the individuals we spoke with, one of the most significant changes in higher education in the state over the past 10 years -- one that has contributed to and resulted from some of the changes discussed below -- has been a noticeable change in the way the South Dakota University System operates. Rather than each institution acting on its own behalf, the institutions have acted much more "for the good of the system" in their approaches to the Legislature. Institutions have also begun to collaborate on course offerings, particularly in low enrollment programs. What was a system of "feudal monarchies" in the mid-1980s has developed into a much more unified system, according to one university president. Another president noted that previously, the institutions "operated independently and would get what they could during budgeting time." This sentiment was echoed by many of the individuals we spoke with, including regents and legislators. The roundtable process itself was also more effective once institutions of higher education could approach issues collectively, rather than in competition with one another.

The evolution of the state's six universities acting more as a "system," was a result of many factors. Several events began taking shape in the 1980s that pushed the universities to act more as a system. Current Governor Janklow was then serving his first term, and, by most interviewee accounts, the governor "planted the seeds" for a very effective board through appointing competent regents. Governor Mickelson, who succeeded Janklow, then started the process of asking how the universities could be more integrated. He also fully funded the enrollment formula at the same time that some external monies were flowing into the state's universities. This helped stimulate research and meet industry needs. In 1993, after Governor Mickelson's death, the formula was no longer fully funded, but ironically, this too may have pushed the institutions and the board to work together in the face of unpredictable funding.

Board influence also began to increase, and the universities were "constantly pushed to work together," according to one president. A regent added that the board changed the internal decision-making process, hiring an executive director who would chair the council of presidents, eliminating what he saw as the "fragmented" decision-making process that had been in place previously. The change in board policy that established the executive director as the chair of the Council of Presidents also emphasized a unified approach to addressing issues. One regent noted, "There was a legislative impetus and we had an internal movement toward a single system, though we don't call it that."

The board reinforced this unified approach to higher education in a 1997 policy statement. In response to policymakers who were concerned with unnecessary duplication within the system, the board called for a unified approach reflected in administrative services and in the use of academic resources. The policy statement established statewide discipline councils in 11 academic disciplines, with the intention of developing greater collaboration regarding curriculum offerings and the development and deployment of resources (including faculty and staff).17

In addition to creating a common policy agenda for public higher education, the idea of working together as a system has encouraged some partnerships between institutions. A significant collaborative effort among three institutions resulted in the creation of what is now known as the Sioux Falls Center for Public Higher Education (CPHE). Through the CPHE, now in its sixth year, each institution offers degree programs and delivers courses. Legislatures and higher education administrators alike point to this collaborative effort as a successful endeavor that is meeting the needs of the state.

Though discussions with business leaders in South Dakota reveal that they feel there needs to be much greater collaboration among institutions in the development and delivery of programs,18 an observer of South Dakota higher education noted that "the universities are clearly acting more as a system -- mostly in terms of how they internally manage things." Other developments also indicate that the universities are indeed addressing issues as a unified system. Successfully transitioning to a new state budgeting process for higher education had systemwide support and was skillfully advocated by the board. Although many factors culminated in this change, the unified voice for higher education was certainly a positive contributor.



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