Is Change the Biggest Challenge to Reforming Public Colleges?

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

One of the more interesting and at times alarming changes in American higher education is the redistricting of public college systems in various states. The most active discussions – some of which produced radical change – have been in states like Vermont, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Maine, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.

In Vermont, higher education officials have merged Lyndon and Johnson State Colleges to create efficiencies in their region. Taking a different tack, Pennsylvania opened discussions on whether to merge colleges within its state system, producing a report that ultimately called for no dramatic changes. In Georgia, a more systemic “rolling” reorganization occurred, with consolidation affecting 14 state campuses unveiled in phases as the reorganization continues.

Wisconsin’s Comprehensive Reorganization of Higher Education System

Wisconsin’s leaders have taken a different approach, favoring a comprehensive reorganization of the state’s public higher ed system. Following an unsuccessful effort to split the flagship Madison campus from the rest of the state university system, lawmakers approved appropriations that cut $250 million from the system’s budget. They also stripped tenure and shared governance protections from the law. More recently, faculty objected to new policies that punish students who disrupt speakers and that give the regents more power in hiring, including administrators from outside academe.

The proposal will merge all 13 of the state two-year campuses into seven of the state’s four-year universities. The Wisconsin Technical College system will not be affected. The system’s president, Raymond W. Cross, argues that this approach will increase access and reverse the declining enrollment of the two-year campuses. It will encourage more students to pursue a four-year degree and better reflect the demographics realities of an aging population and a shift from rural to urban areas. Specific details remain sketchy.

Faculty Calls for Slower Change Unlikely to Win Favor with Public

The faculty are, by and large, deeply concerned about the proposed changes. Budgets are, after all, rationing tools. Efforts to save money may do little to improve what many faculty believe to be a declining position as they fight budget cutbacks and perceived threats to academic freedom and shared governance.

Many faculty are calling for a more orderly, slower, and structured approach that is systematic and research-based with substantially broader input from them. For these faculty, the process matters.

This strategy may buy some time, but it is unlikely to win in the broader court of public opinion. It’s an “inside baseball” tactic that will cast concerned faculty, staff, and students as proponents of cultural inertia who are out-of-touch with the needs of a global workforce and the tolerance of taxpayers to foot the bills for the growing cost of higher education.

The public will have little interest in a public drama about how appointment and tenure decisions will be made in a combined system.

Some Support for Merger of Community Colleges into Four-Year Campuses

The merger of the community college system into the seven four-year public campuses may or may not be a good idea. In most respects, it’s up to the voters of Wisconsin to decide what they wish to support with their tax dollars.

Some of this decision is already obscured by the lack of transparency that went into the planning before the Wisconsin system announced the proposal.

And yet, the primary motivation behind whatever turns out to be the outcome must answer the question of how best to provide access and affordability for Wisconsin’s college-bound students.

What Solution Will Provide Students Access, Affordability?

This is where both sides can come together. They will need to demonstrate transparency, open communication, clarity, precision, and an eagerness to assess a drastic reorganization like the one proposed.

To foist change on a higher education community that values process will not work. To maintain an inefficient higher education system that is not nimble enough to react to changing demographics and new workforce needs is equally impractical.

Yet there are broader policy questions that must be immediately addressed.

What is the purpose, mission, and value proposition of the community colleges and the state four-year public colleges? Are they the same or different? Does their history correlate or were they organized in their hiring, facilities, and program development for different reasons and designed to promote different outcomes? Surely the institutions are better than chess pieces that can be moved around to suit demographic and budget projections.

What is the value to this merger for the students and taxpayers? If the system can demonstrate that this change serves students better and meets the needs of Wisconsin’s workforce, there is value in developing an agenda and timeline for this merger, especially if there is broader input from the public system’s stakeholders.

But there is also a responsibility to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that such changes will also create new opportunities, basic economic efficiencies, and enhanced opportunities for innovation, creativity, and collaboration.

It’s unclear, for example, if the Georgia reorganization has accomplished much of what its officials promised in these areas.

The takeaway from Wisconsin is that changes are coming in higher education, including for public colleges and universities. What isn’t clear is if the process for promoting change can withstand the challenge of making change happen.

This article first appeared on the blog of the Edvance Foundation. 

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