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:
- The University of Utah and Utah State University have grown from small home-town colleges into premier research universities, drawing hundreds of millions of dollars of grants every year. A Board of Regents initiative directing "reimbursed overhead" research funding back to universities to fuel more research has been an important factor in building research success. Good research policies are good governance.
- Higher education enrollment growth has been directed toward less expensive community colleges so taxpayers can afford to pay the costs of Utah's high college-going rate, and university research missions can be preserved. Good enrollment growth policies are good governance.
- Utah has been recognized by the American Governance Board for its student transfer policies, which enable students to navigate their way through multiple institutions in an increasingly mobile world. Good transfer policies are good governance.
- Those who criticize Utah's governance structure point to alarming facts and figures. They talk about higher education's shrinking share of the state budget.
- How can colleges and universities move more quickly to meet the learning needs of the 21st century? Are we taking advantage of the tools of technology to expand educational opportunities? Colleges should be scrambling to collaborate with Governor Leavitt's Western Governor's University, which will provide technology delivered education to students everywhere, not just traditional campuses.
- How many institutions of higher education should we have in Utah, and how should they be configured? We need to look at more efficient and effective ways of expanding educational opportunities.
- Should the traditional system of faculty tenure be updated to protect academic freedom, but more carefully measure teaching skills and productivity? We can't just wait for the current system to fail; we need to take the leadership to improve it.
- Are colleges and universities integrated into their communities through adequate public service? Many public leaders don't understand and support the complex missions of colleges and universities, but it's partly because institutions aren't playing the essential role in their communities that they should.
- And one of the most important issues in higher education today; how to abandon the old argument of training versus education, and recognize that today's well-educated students need both training and education to be ready for the world of work.
- Utah's governance structure isn't perfect. Far from it. Higher education leaders should welcome the review that is underway by the Utah State Legislature. It will inevitably yield some good recommendations for refinement. But let's not blame the Board of Regents for problems that are far bigger, more complex, and frankly much more interesting, than the question of who is in charge.
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.