Higher Education Governance
Federal systems have the capability of linking institutions, however configured for governing purposes, to each other and to state government through four central work processes: information management, program planning, budgeting, and articulation. These work processes are managed by a statewide agency with enough support and delegated authority to compel institutional attention to state priorities. Federal systems can make available credible and timely information on system needs and system performance to elected officials, to institutions, and to the public. They can use program approval and program review authority to limit program duplication and to encourage quality. They can reduce some of the inherent conflicts in the budgeting process and link resource allocation to system priorities. They can design and implement articulation initiatives. If they have a large private sector, they can involve private institutions in contributing to the achievement of state priorities. In federal systems, legislatures typically see themselves as custodians of institutional interests and intervene when they disagree with the way work processes are being used by the coordinating board.
A unified system links institutions to each other and to state government through a single governing board and chief executive. The effectiveness of board management of the four work processes depends upon executive leadership. Unified systems can provide less information on performance than federal systems partly to limit the capacity of external actors to insert themselves into system decisions. Despite providing less information, unified systems may communicate better with state government because of the single contact point for the Governor and legislators. When unified systems have constitutional status, this autonomy helps to guard against excessive external influence. Unified systems with strong executive leadership prevent mission creep, ensure program quality and avoid unnecessary program duplication through program review processes. They use the budgeting process to support strategic objectives. Governing boards for unified systems do not see the inclusion of private institutions in planning as part of their responsibility. When elected leaders have confidence in system leadership, the unified system requires little oversight from state government.
Confederated systems are harder to characterize. The use of work processes and links to state government may be different for each subsystem. More government agencies are involved directly with governing boards, and the Legislature often provides most of the coordination across subsystems. Confederated systems do not appear to have the capacity to engage in significant statewide strategic planning even though they may have a weak coordinating structure charged with that responsibility. In confederated systems, each subsystem provides its own data and elected officials often suspect that information is being provided with an “institutional spin.” In states where a statewide agency has responsibility for providing information, results are suspect because they are based on data provided by the subsystems. Each subsystem makes its own decisions about which programs to offer and where, subject in some instances to review by a statewide agency. Statewide program review procedures are often more a formality than an actual barrier to program duplication. Problems of unnecessary program duplication may arise either within a subsystem or between competing subsystems. Each subsystem negotiates its own budget with the Governor and the Legislature. Often such negotiations are the primary or only way for state government to influence higher education. Where subsystems lack constitutional autonomy, legislatures may exercise direct statutory control of operations. The absence of any buffer between state government and subsystems on such work processes as budgeting contributes to antagonistic relationships with the Legislature, the Governor, or both. Where subsystems are homogeneous, the Legislature assumes responsibility for statewide coordination. In heterogeneous subsystems, governing boards tend to the relationships between two- and four-year institutions. Legislatures bear most of the responsibility for devising ways of including the private sector. Where the private sector is strong, relationships with the public subsystems may be competitive and antagonistic.
With the exception of budgeting, confederated institutions with constitutional autonomy are linked neither to each other nor to state government through any work processes other than those they voluntarily establish. Confederated institutions can determine their own missions and decide which programs they will offer where. Voluntary program review processes may serve to allay some policy concerns, but will not prevent a determined institution from doing whatever it chooses. Confederated institutions do not provide information that permits comparisons or judgments about performance except as it may be required by the Legislature as a condition of the budgeting process. Voluntary agreements on articulation are a matter of institutional interpretation and subscription. The Legislature must determine how and when private institutions should be involved. Relationships between elected officials and higher education leaders are cordial as long as no one is rewarded or penalized other than through arrangements to which those affected have previously agreed.
Each system came to be what it currently is more as a consequence of geography, political culture, and historical accident than through any systematic or consistent effort to follow a particular set of design principles. The character and history of state governments clearly affect their choice of governance structures and the ways these structures function. Historical and contextual factors such as the relative strength of the Governor, the presence of a strong private higher education sector, constitutional status for public institutions, the existence of a well developed two-year college sector, collective bargaining, and voter initiatives are all highly important in the ways governance systems operate.
Higher education priorities and strategies for responding to contextual change seem to depend not upon the degree to which the responses of higher education may be needed, but rather upon the presence of facilitating governance arrangements. In the absence of these facilitating governance structures, elected leaders must rely upon market forces or such incremental direction as the political process may support. Institutions and subsystems are more or less left to find their own way with the unspoken hope that whatever they do will be what the state needs.
While some states set priorities and others do not, there is relatively little disagreement across the states in terms of what they want from their systems of higher education. Whether implicit or explicit, all states hope their systems will provide access, equity, quality, efficiency, and reasonable choice. They hope higher education will contribute to state goals for economic development and that institutions will remain affordable. They want institutions to demonstrate reasonable productivity and to give priority to state residents. They want undergraduate education that satisfies students and encourages them to earn degrees on a timely basis.
Our research suggests that differences in governance structures do influence the performance of higher education systems, including system responsiveness to state priorities. Elected leaders identify and communicate priorities to their higher education systems. Not surprisingly, these systems are perceived to be more responsive than those where elected leaders rely primarily on market influences and the budget to shape institutional priorities. The absence of balanced attention to institutional and professional values contributes to stalling and other forms of subsystem resistance to legislatively determined priorities. Both the absence of market influences and a plan that insulates public subsystems from each other and from state government produce a system that is notably non-responsive to external influences.
The system achieve different results for efficiency, access, equity, affordability, and retention. Only in the case of affordability, however, does there appear to be a strong link between governance structures and performance. Families in states that have a systemwide mechanism for representing the public interest in budget decisions, or some device for addressing affordability, pay a smaller percentage of institutional operating costs than those that lack such a mechanism. This seems to be the case even when elected leaders have made affordability a priority. Even where an agreement existed, it applied only to the two-year segment. We conclude that affordability is an issue on which public and institutional interests come into conflict, and therefore creates a need for independent advocacy.
There is no evidence in our data that one type of system necessarily has a lower cost per student than another. In other words, institutions and subsystems with individual governing boards are not discernibly less costly than federal or unified systems.
States do provide differing levels of choice. Factors that clearly influence this variable include: the existence of a strong private sector, the capacity of the state to manage and interrelate tuition and student aid, the degree to which private institutions are included in systemwide planning efforts, and the extent to which a state is able to develop and preserve a viable higher education market.
Leaders of four-year institutions devote more of their attention to institutional concerns and must be prepared to collaborate and compromise where institutional aspirations conflict with system or subsystem priorities. None of the leaders in either setting expressed significant dissatisfaction with the arrangements under which they worked, perhaps because strong institutional leaders seek settings that are a reasonable match for their strengths. Satisfaction among internal actors does not appear to be a useful criterion for distinguishing among the governance structures. None of the leaders were planning major changes in their current ways of doing business, and nothing in our data suggests that institutions with one type of leadership consistently outperform those with another. Absent some preconceived theoretical notion of what constitutes “strong institutional leadership,” it is not possible on the basis of our data to suggest that some governance structures attract stronger leaders than others.
System design and governance structures determine the range of strategies available to elected officials in their relationships with higher education institutions as well as the likelihood of the officials’ use of those strategies. Federal and unified systems have the capacity to identify priorities, to shape institutional responses through all four of the work processes, and to use information to communicate progress. Confederated systems and confederated institutions lack mechanisms for using several or all of these strategies, unless the mechanisms exist in the legislative arena. The elected officials’ use of these mechanisms promotes confidence at the state level concerning the system’s capacity to cope with contextual change in ways that are responsive to the public interest. Coordinating boards that are not simply higher education or state government-that is, part of both higher education and state government -do a better job of balancing the public interest against professional values and institutional concerns than do subsystem or institutional governing boards that spend much of their time competing with other subsystems or protecting the institutions they govern from the influence of state government. Perhaps the best evidence here is affordability (as explained earlier concerning performance). Nothing that elected officials do in states with confederated systems or confederated institutions alters performance in ways that promote confidence about the system’s capacity to respond to significant contextual change. It is difficult to discern in these case reports the traditional elements of the institutional autonomy/state authority debate. Institutions in federal systems are, if anything, freer from regulation than most of their similarly situated counterparts in confederated systems.
In federal systems, the coordinating boards prefer to build consensus among institutions and subsystems rather than relying on authority, which is often weak. Subsystems rely on coordinating boards to make difficult program decisions that might otherwise threaten cohesion. Not infrequently, coordinating board activity strengthens the hand of presidents in dealing with faculty resistance to curriculum reform. Elected leaders in federal systems identify priorities because they have the mechanisms for pursuing them. They also have credible information to judge institutional performance. Except for system changes, governors and legislators intervene directly in the management of institutions only by exception, usually when institutional interests are threatened.
State systems with a unified or small number of subsystem governing boards seem to invite management by strong governors and legislatures unless protected by constitutional autonomy. Even where systems or subsystems are protected, perceived weaknesses in leadership may invite attempts to influence institutional actions through the appointment of “reform board members,” through annual budget negotiations, or both. Subsystems that lack constitutional autonomy experience heavy-handed management from strong governors and legislatures in the form of budget reductions unrelated to fiscal shortfalls, mandates for articulation and collaboration, restrictions on revenue generation and expenditures, and regulation of employee relationships. At the extreme, legislators may intervene in such normal institutional prerogatives as faculty work load and credit hours for degrees. In these governance structures, relationships between subsystem executives and state government are frequently tense. Strong leadership expands the boundaries of subsystem discretion, but cannot entirely overcome the regulatory inclinations of elected officials and state agencies. Strong system and subsystem leaders typically provide institutional heads with considerable latitude on internal decisions while enforcing strict discipline on relationships with state government to present a united front for lobbying. Despite direct involvement in management, elected officials generally lack the information needed to assess institutional performance, fail to communicate priorities effectively, and typically have at their disposal only weak mechanisms for planning on a systemwide basis and for encouraging collaboration across institutions and subsystems. The elected officials are frequently dissatisfied with responses of higher education to public interests and concerns.
Elected officials who manage higher education systems exhibit little deference to professional values. The degree to which they ignore such values in mandates they perceive to be in the public interest provokes resistance and foot-dragging that not infrequently defeats the intent of the legislation. At the time of our study, a well regarded board and strong executive leadership in this system seemed to be doing an effective job of responding to contextual change in ways that balanced professional values and the public interest, as judged by strong support from elected officials and the absence of their attempts to influence institutional behavior.
The combination of constitutional autonomy and individual governing boards for each institution maximizes the influence of professional values. The annual budget, the only process available to elected leaders to influence higher education, is constrained by a legislative tradition of awarding appropriations without regard to performance or enrollment changes. The effectiveness of institutional governing boards in balancing the public interest against professional values can be inferred from the cost structure. The Legislature protects state revenues by funding institutions at a rate that is close to the national average. Residents pick up the difference in the form of high tuition costs. Elected leaders make pronouncements about the importance of affordability, but have no mechanism for limiting institutional aspirations, competition, or program and service duplication that contribute to the high costs.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.