Adjusting Governance Won't Solve Education's Ills

By Vicki Varela

Times are tough in higher education. The quarter to semester transition is wreaking havoc with faculty lesson plans.The U of U is on the cusp of a new presidency, with all its attendant anticipation and anxiety. Enrollment grows while higher education's share of the state budget pie shrinks. State leaders are asking hard questions about educational results and cost efficiency.

At times like these, it's natural that people wonder whether there is a big gear change that would improve higher education's lot. Conversations turn to whether Utah has the best governance structure for its system of higher education. Governance structure is a perennial discussion that becomes most hearty under such stressful conditions.

The debate reminds me of a friend who has a pretty good, maybe even a great, marriage. Like the Utah State Board of Regents, her marriage has lasted nearly 30 years. She is raising a large family, and dealing with all the accompanying hassles and thrills. In the time she has been married, her assets have grown exponentially, but sometimes she and her husband still feel that they don't have the money they need to accomplish their goals. Every once in awhile, she suggests that maybe the marriage just doesn't work anymore. A different marriage would be better, she says, one with a different balance of power and responsibilities. Then we have a good laugh about how miserable she would be if she really got what she wanted, and we brainstorm some ways the marriage can be refined to achieve better results. In short, abandoning her marriage when things get rough is tempting, but not a practical solution to most of her problems. Likewise, the Utah System of Higher Education governance is in constant need of refinement to work more smoothly. But throwing out the system of governance is not the big gear change that will eliminate the problems of the day.

The fact is, Utah's colleges and universities have experienced stunning growth in prominence and educational delivery since the Board of Regents governance structure was established in 1969. Consider the following:

What this lonely, and yes, alarming, statistic fails to communicate is that the same thing is happening in every state all over the country. It's a product of growing crime and social programs, not an inadequate governance structure. Yes, we should all be alarmed about a world where crime and social spending needs consume more of our tax resources, but logic can't make a leap to blame the Utah State Board of Regents for this social phenomenon. In many ways, the argument about Utah's governance structure is a way of avoiding other, more important discussions:

Vicki Varela is deputy chief of staff for Governor Mike Leavitt. Varela previously served as the Assistant Commissioner of Higher Education for Public Affairs. She has been involved in a number of public issues campaigns, and previously worked as a journalist at the Deseret News and Associated Press.