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The Inevitable Happens in Ohio

The Inevitable Happens in Ohio
February 23, 2011

Well, that was predictable.

The chancellor of Ohio's recently established university system, Eric Fingerhut, announced his resignation Tuesday, a year before his five-year term was to expire and four months after his political ally, former Governor Ted Strickland, lost his re-election bid.

Fingerhut said in an interview Tuesday that he had decided to leave on his own terms (to "pursue other opportunities") and that Ohio's new governor, John Kasich, had not asked him to abandon the chancellorship. Fingerhut also insisted that he would probably have left at the end of his five-year term even if Strickland -- who created a structure in which he, rather than Ohio's Board of Regents, appointed the chancellor -- had been re-elected.

Experts on higher education governance, however, cited the situation as a cautionary tale about the dangers of creating a structure for public postsecondary education that links state higher education leaders too closely to the governor, as proposals now under consideration in Washington and, to a lesser degree, Oregon would do.

"At a time when continuity in reform is critical (bringing about systemic changes to improve performance takes years of sustained, consistent effort), attaching this agenda primarily to a governor will almost guarantee that the agenda will change when the governorship changes," Aims C. McGuinness, senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said via e-mail.

Ohio has undergone rapid and significant change in its higher education system since 2007, when the state legislature passed a law allowing Strickland, rather than the Ohio Board of Regents, to appoint the higher education chancellor, streamlining the newly created University System of Ohio and -- as a near-unavoidable consequence -- politicizing its head position. The structural changes made it easier for the governor and his hand-picked chancellor to get things done: a several-year tuition freeze, a performance-based funding system, and a set of other changes that have been heralded (and funded) by the major foundations that are driving many higher ed-reform efforts today.

Several leading governance experts testified against the original Ohio legislation, arguing that yoking the chancellor to the governor would virtually ensure even more dramatic whiplash in higher education policy-making than is inevitably the case in any system in which elected leaders get to set the course, which by design leads to changes in direction.

That's true even when the next governor is not from a different party, said McGuinness, of NCHEMS, a policy consultancy. "Even if the successor governor is in the same political party, he or she will rarely pick up and champion his or her predecessor’s agenda," he said.

In the buildup to November's election, as Strickland's defeat seemed more and more likely amid Ohio's (and the country's) economic downturn, many college leaders in the state speculated that the election was likely to bring an end to the Fingerhut era in Ohio public higher education, even though his Federal Reserve-like term was due to stretch (purposely) at least a year into Kasich's first term.

Now that has indeed come to pass, and McGuinness said he worries that "other states seem to be interested in having the governor play a more direct role in the system and appointing the head of the system," as the governor of Washington, Christine Gregoire, has proposed. (Her proposal would create a cabinet-level position to oversee all of education; the governor of Oregon is contemplating something roughly similar.)

Fingerhut acknowledges that Ohio's governance structure is "clearly a mixed blessing," as it "does create the possibility for a little bit more turnover than another system does."

But he said he would not trade what the state has been able to accomplish with its new system. "The close linkage between the governor and chancellor provided an opportunity for systemwide action that would not otherwise have existed in a state like Ohio," Fingerhut said.

"I think we've taken full advantage of the upside of this approach, while recognizing that we couldn't entirely get rid of the downside."

What happens now? Many public college officials in Ohio liked the governance structure and the Strickland/Fingerhut team because they put higher education at the forefront of the state's agenda (and, not insignificantly, favored it in budgetary allocations -- in contrast, they said, to Strickland's predecessor, Robert Taft).

Kasich is a budget hawk who has said nice things about colleges and universities, but also made clear that nothing will be protected. "[E]very single part of this government is under review, from kindergarten through 12, to higher education, to the prison system, to mental health, to Medicaid. We will have pieces of reform and change in it all," he told the Columbus Dispatch this month.

His hand-picked chancellor may not be nearly as popular with those who've been fans of the new higher education structure as Strickland's selection was -- and might make the enhanced power of a politically connected chancellor less appealing.

Fingerhut plays down that possibility. While he said he would "fully expect that anybody [who succeeds him] will want to put their own imprimatur" on Ohio's approach to public higher education, "I have a very high level of confidence that the main elements of our strategy will continue, because we're doing what Ohio needs to do to prosper in a global economy ...: driving economic prosperity, increasing college attainment rates.

"One thing that doesn't change in state government," Fingerhut said, "is that the competition for jobs and businesses continues every day."

 

 

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