The Shifting Role of University Systems

A key issue for public higher ed.

March 26, 2014

Must reading for anyone interested in the future of public higher education is Jason E. Lane and Dr. Bruce Johnstone’s Higher Education Systems 3.0 (SUNY Press, 2013), which examines the shifting role of multi-campus university systems.

Today, 59 multi-campus public  university systems operate in 37 states,  serving roughly three quarters of all students at four-year public colleges and universities.

A relatively recent phenomenon, multi-campus university systems first emerged in the late nineteenth century, but only became commonplace after World War II. From the outset, the primary motivation for system-building was to curb political influence in funding public colleges and universities.

Systems were created to reduce institutional competition for state appropriations and discourage legislators from lobbying in behalf of particular campuses. Other goals were to prevent mission creep, achieve economies of scale, and ensure the viability of academic programs and limit redundancies.

Systems take contrasting forms. A segmentation model, epitomized by California, divides public postsecondary education into discrete tiers based on institutional mission and admissions criteria. A comprehensive model, exemplified by the State University of New York System, includes community colleges as well as state colleges, technical colleges, regional comprehensive universities, and research universities.

Eighteen states have a single, state-wide system; nineteen have multiple systems, distinguished by geography or institutional type. There are also substantial differences in the degree of autonomy granted to component campuses, with some possessing separate governing boards. 

System responsibilities vary widely. Most are responsible for allocating capital and operational funds, auditing campus expenditures, approving academic programs, and overseeing campus compliance with state and federal rules and regulations.  Systems also establish legislative priorities, hire and review campus presidents or chancellors, and establish uniform rules regarding governance, personnel, academic and student issues, and intellectual property. A smaller number conduct collective bargaining and manage grants, benefits, and retirement systems. 

For decades, systems’ primary functions were largely limited to policymaking and oversight. In recent years, however, systems have taken a more aggressive and expansive role in setting tuition and fees, collecting and analyzing data, and coordinating relationships with school districts, community colleges, foundations, and government.    

In four areas, the system’s role has become particularly important: In providing shared services, setting systemwide priorities, driving innovation, and coordinating online learning.

To trim campus costs, systems increasingly leverage scale in procurement and promote uniformity in administrative, financial, and strategic enrollment management processes and software and in IT infrastructure. Systems have also redefined institutional priorities around accessibility, affordability, and student learning outcomes, including time-to-degree.

Many systems have taken the lead in negotiating articulation agreements to ease credit transfer and in advocating for competency-based education. Perhaps the most striking development is the growing role of systems in promoting a coordinated approach to online learning for non-matriculated as well as matriculated students.

Not surprising, the expanding role of systems has provoked a reaction, especially, but not exclusively, from flagship campuses. Flagships worry that a trend toward uniform per-student funding and system-imposed limits on tuition increases threaten their prestige and special mission.

Other campuses, in turn, fear that systems, through their oversight role over new programs and facilities, undercut their ability to grow. As system allocations decline as a share of institutional revenue, complaints have grown that system administration duplicate campus functions and absorb resources best expended by individual institutions.

My personal view is that there is great value in systemness. I say this as a system administrator but also as a faculty member at an individual campus. Systems are well-positioned to devise strategic plans that will allow campuses to fulfill their distinct mission, build on their unique strengths, and better serve their locality. Systems can also promote cross-institutional collaborations allowing campuses to capitalize on a common brand.  In addition, systems can help campuses share and scale resources.

Most important of all, system can serve as innovation incubators, assisting campuses in building the data-driven strategic enrollment and student lifecycle management infrastructure needed to support education in the 21st century; in advancing next-generation online learning, which will play a critical role in enhancing access, affordability, student success, and institutional sustainability; and leading the way as institutions gradually develop outcomes-driven, competency-based, career-oriented educational pathways.

Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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