Freedom at a Price

Ohio governor's plan to deregulate state universities could spark another round of divisive debates.
August 9, 2011

Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Jim Petro will on Thursday unveil a plan designed to reduce government involvement in the state’s 14 public universities, giving the institutions more authority in administrative and financial matters if they meet certain performance benchmarks.

While some campus leaders, such as Ohio State's E. Gordon Gee, have praised the ideas behind the plan and anticipate seeking the increased freedom, other college officials and faculty members are concerned about the unintended consequences of the reform legislation.

They worry that over time the universities could see decreased state support, significantly higher tuition costs, the erosion of employee protections, and decreased transparency in financial and administrative matters, and point to other states where legislatures have freed up institutions from regulations and seen such consequences. Campus officials are also apprehensive about the fact that the plan has been developed without significant faculty, student, or staff input.

“A lot of people see this as trying to make changes without consulting people most affected by the changes,” said Sara Kilpatrick, executive director of the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors.

It has mostly been Petro and his staff crafting the plan, without a widespread discussion among the universities. Petro has met with some faculty members, including the Ohio Faculty Council, which represents faculty members from all 14 campuses, but details about the project have been sparse. System administrators said the time for debate will come once the plan is unveiled Thursday and the proposal enters the legislature.

Because the process to date has not involved many faculty members, students, or employees, Kilpatrick said, there are more likely to be aspects of the plan that various campus groups oppose, potentially making the process of getting the plan through the state legislature -- which would have to take place before any reforms are enacted -- messier. “The plan could have a lot better buy-in and consensus before the legislative process if they had consulted folks,” Kilpatrick said. “Instead, they’ve set themselves up for a very adversarial legislative battle.”

Such a fight might be especially bitter because it would come only months after the governor signed a law that effectively barred college and university faculty from unionizing.

The “Enterprise University” plan was first proposed as part of Gov. John Kasich’s budget in March, which passed the state legislature and was signed into law on June 30. Since then, Petro has been working to iron out the specifics, which he will present publicly on Thursday and to the legislature on Aug. 15.

While details of the Ohio plan will not be final until Thursday's presentation, a draft of the plan released July 18 calls for immediately freeing all universities from certain regulatory restrictions, such as state health and safety codes, and eliminating enrollment caps. The draft also calls for giving the universities complete control of the management of their employees and exempting them from the purview of the state personnel board of review.

The universities would then be measured annually on a set of metrics that include student outcomes, such as graduation and retention rates; degree production in science, technology, engineering, and math fields; and the percentage of students participating in internship programs, as well as financial measures such as endowment size, affordability measured as a percentage of the consumer price index, and the unallocated cash balance as a percentage of total operating expenses. None of the proposed metrics in the draft plan deals with faculty or research productivity or service to the state.

If they met certain benchmarks on the proposed measures, the universities would be given different levels of autonomy on matters such as tuition pricing, the purchase and sale of university property, and debt issuance.

The philosophy behind the plan is a "charter" approach to higher education, though officials have backed away from that wording since the idea was originally floated. Ohio would emulate states such as Virginia and recent proposals in Wisconsin and Oregon that try to shrink government oversight of and funding for public universities. Kasich, who proposed the idea, promises better use of state resources while giving more freedom to institutions to determine their own destinies and increasing competition among the institutions for students and resources.

"Ways were identified to free Ohio's 14 universities from burdensome mandates allowing for more entrepreneurial activity," said Kim Norris, director of communications for the Board of Regents, in an e-mail. "The benefit for Ohio is a more accountable and productive university system that produces more degree holders and drives economic success." The board of regents and chancellor's office would not discuss details of the plan until Thursday.

When the plan was first presented in March, Gee and several other campus leaders said they supported the idea of freeing up universities from state control. On Monday, several campus spokesmen said they would not comment on the plan or their opinions of it until its public unveiling.

The plan, if approved, would be a dramatic about-face from the previous governor’s efforts to bring the state’s universities into a more centralized system.

Some administrators and faculty members said many of the provisions included in drafts of the plan could be beneficial, particularly the idea that it would foster competition over time, making the universities better.

So-called "charter university" plans have picked up support in the last few years as states have continued to cut budgets while seeking improved outcomes for higher education institutions. For politicians, the plan is a way to demand more out of institutions without pouring in more resources. For individual campus leaders, the increased autonomy is a concession extracted for further budget cuts, which would likely come anyway. Proponents point to the University of Virginia, which has seen continued success on many metrics since it was freed of state regulations.

In a blog post last week, Gary Rhoades, a higher education researcher and former general secretary of the AAUP, wrote that charter universities do little to address many of the problems states are actually facing. He noted that institutions given certain freedoms tend to drive up tuition, making them less accessible. By only measuring certain characteristics, he noted, charter policies can also drive institutions to water down the academic experience. "The overriding emphasis on narrow conceptions of productivity encourages universities to demand less of students," he wrote. "It also encourages them to pursue the easiest path to increased graduation rates (which rather than student learning, satisfaction, or success after graduation, becomes the sole measure of 'effectiveness'), to chase those students most likely to succeed and run away from the growth population of students."


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