For much of the past century, public higher education in the United States has been governed by various forms of state university control. These “systems” and their governing boards define and harmonize the educational interests and needs of their respective states with campus strategic plans, allocate state resources, oversee capital development, and try to buffer institutions from excessive intrusion by politicians and state agencies -- important roles all.
And, because state higher education systems often comprise institutions located in all regions of the state, they are believed to be able to generate more general legislative support for higher education than might be possible for any single institution.
Yet despite the prevalence and best intentions of systems, it's not clear that good state systems any longer lead to good university governance. Indeed, it may be that university systems are inimical to the health of public flagship universities and to the states and regions they serve. As institutions have grown larger and more complex, it is more difficult for a single system board to oversee and govern them. And systems emerged to manage growth in the 20th century; the current agenda and public interests are quite different, rendering them less effective if not obsolete.
State systems emerged for good reasons. The financial exigencies of the Great Depression, then the explosive expansion of public higher education in the 1950s and 1960s, led states to create some form of statewide governance or coordination to allocate resources, guide growth and avoid unnecessary duplication of programs. Each state has dealt with the issue in its own fashion – some with one or more systems with governing boards, some with statewide coordinating boards, and some with advisory boards.
So long as states continued to invest in higher education, with new resources lifting all the ships in their respective fleets, university systems encountered little opposition. Flagship campuses frequently chafed at their incorporation in larger systems or at the resource demands of branch campuses, as well as the ambitions of smaller regional, “wannabe” campuses, but the flood of new state money quieted most of their criticism. University systems increased in number and influence through the 1970s.
University systems also increased their bureaucratic structures during this period, with system offices and coordinating boards invested with more authority. In 1971, North Carolina created a single Board of Governors that merged the University of North Carolina with the other non-aligned campuses. However, North Carolina also delegated certain responsibilities to institutional boards, allowing for the retention of considerable institutional autonomy. In Wisconsin, the legislature, tired of competition between the four-campus University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin State College System, in 1973 combined all four-year institutions into the University of Wisconsin System, governed by a single board of regents.
The merger in Wisconsin succeeded in moving the conflict from the legislature to the system itself, with the regional campuses often in opposition to the flagship, Madison, and the urban campus in Milwaukee. During the next decade, faculty salaries at Madison fell to last place in the Big Ten; efforts to overcome the gap were attacked by the regional campuses. Between 1980 and 1986, class size in Madison and Milwaukee increased 17 percent -- 70 percent more than in the regional campuses. Subsequent efforts to improve the funding of Madison were largely successful, but Wisconsin represented a clear case in which the flagship research university suffered as a consequence of the creation of a single consolidated system.
The moves toward greater centralization met with increasing resistance. As early as 1971, Clark Kerr, the principal architect of the Californian Master Plan, predicted such resistance: “The future is not likely to be simply a mirror of the past. Bureaucratic centralism is under attack in many places from many sources. The new theme is local control, volunteerism, and spontaneity…. It is unlikely that the multi-campus systems of higher education in the United States will escape from the impact of these demands.”
Decentralization Takes Hold
It is not surprising, therefore, that the move toward greater centralization and control began to recede in the 1990s. This “decentralization” took several forms.
At its most basic level, it involved the weakening or dismantling of statewide coordinating agencies and the reduction of bureaucratic controls over campus decision making. In some states, legislation transferred authority for certain management functions to individual campuses – retention of tuition income, where it had previously been submitted to the state for reappropriation by the legislature to the campus; greater control over enrollments and personnel; or independence from many state regulations. Changes in the authority of the major institutions in Virginia are examples of this form of substantial restructuring of the relationships of the universities to the state.
In a few states, systems were dissolved and institutional boards replaced system boards. In 1995, for example, Illinois abolished two multicampus systems. Florida first abolished its Florida University System in favor of separate governing boards for each university, then reversed itself in 2003 to reestablish a statewide consolidated system that presided over the separate institutional governing boards.
In at least one instance, the move to decentralize the power of systems led to the creation of a “quasi-public” corporation, with the transfer of virtually all management functions to the campus, which was then given its own governing board. This was the separation of the Oregon Health Science University (OHSU) from the Oregon University System in 1995. Subsequently, OHSU began to operate more like a private institution, loosely tied to the state. Its separation from the limitations of the system unleashed remarkable growth in OHSU’s quality and stature. And it became a model for similar moves by the University of Oregon in 2010 and after.
Unlike the period of the Great Depression, when financial austerity produced calls for greater centralization of controls of higher education, or the 1960s when expansion led to the need to rationalize structures and avoid competition among growing and aspiring state colleges and universities, the two decades after 1990 were marked by both austerity and limited growth and by efforts at decentralization of authority.  The reasons for this can be found in the substantially different circumstances in which universities found themselves in recent decades.
First, public commitment to universities as “public goods” began to erode. The common view from the 1930s through the 1970s that public universities served the common good began to change by the 1980s. A tax rebellion reversed attitudes toward government and public expenditures; user fees often replaced public appropriations. The benefits of universities were seen as largely accruing to the individuals who attended them, with user fees in the form of student tuition replacing state appropriations.
Second, a corollary of this change in public attitude, was the fact that public universities facing declining state support, especially flagship institutions, began a quest for new forms of revenue, often through private fund-raising. Increasingly dependent on resources they raised themselves, either in the form of tuition or gifts and endowment, these institutions chafed at the constraints imposed on them by state authorities or system boards. State or system controls and limitations on institutional freedom of action may have made sense when the state provided the lion’s share of a university’s revenue, but they made little sense when state revenues constituted a small fraction of institutional resources.
In a real sense, however, greater decentralization led to demands for even greater autonomy of decision-making. As the resources of flagship universities became more diversified, continuing limitations imposed by systems to keep all state institutions in alignment with one another – over tuition levels or faculty and staff salary increases, for example – became more onerous and crippling. The strongest flagship campuses within systems, which competed with the strongest national institutions for faculty and research grants, felt themselves the most handicapped by their system affiliations.
Third, a new philosophy of organizational management developed, stressing the importance of local decision-making and the inefficiencies of large systems with top-down management. The public higher education variant of this was called responsibility-centered management, introduced at Indiana University in 1988-89 and adopted shortly thereafter by several other major public universities. This approach allocated budgets within universities based on calculations of revenues generated and costs incurred. It inclined toward “putting each tub on its own bottom,” and encouraged academic units to think in terms of generating revenue and limiting costs. In this environment, state and system policies often became constraints. Moves toward greater institutional autonomy were consistent with the principles of RCM.
Finally, the research function of universities, especially the flagships, assumed a larger role in the “information age.” Universities saw themselves, and were viewed by their states, as agents of economic development. They were expected to interact closely with local businesses, their faculty to become more entrepreneurial. But to become truly entrepreneurial, universities needed to be liberated from state and system controls.
The first noteworthy effort to break a flagship campus free of its system came at the University of Wisconsin in 2011, when Madison Chancellor Carolyn (Biddy) Martin, with the support of Governor Scott Walker, proposed making UW Madison a “public authority,”  separate from the University of Wisconsin System. Supported by the UW Madison faculty senate, the proposal met serious opposition from the other campuses and from the university’s regents and ultimately from the Legislature as well. Shortly after it was defeated, Martin left the university to become the president of Amherst College.
Also in 2011, the University of Oregon proposed separating from the Oregon University System in a manner similar to that achieved by the Oregon Health Science University 15 years earlier. With a novel proposal for financing the university,  President Richard Lariviere proposed freezing state funding at its then-current level of about $60 million. This $60 million would then be used to finance a 30-year bond, whose proceeds would become part of the university’s endowment and matched by private endowment gifts. The endowment revenue would replace state support and, after 30 years, state support could cease.
Lariviere’s differences with the Oregon board over this issue and over a faculty salary increase put him and the university out of step with Oregon’s other public universities and the system. The system board terminated him in December 2011.
Lariviere’s termination did not end the University of Oregon’s quest to break free; indeed, it undoubtedly enhanced it. In the spring of 2013, the Oregon Legislature passed legislation separating the University of Oregon and Portland State University from the system and granted extensive institutional autonomy to separate governing boards for each institution.
Even within the University of California, generally regarded as the most successful university system in the United States, leading campuses have become restless with the lock-step constraints of the system office. In a paper entitled, “Modernizing Governance at the University of California,” then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and other Berkeley campus leaders proposed that the UC Board of Regents create and delegate specific responsibilities to campus boards. Arguing that the UC Board of Regents could no longer effectively govern the 10 complex campuses that comprise the University of California, the paper insists that local boards with more intimate connections to the individual campuses should be given the authority to set tuition, approve capital projects, approve appointments of vice chancellors, approve cost-of-living salary adjustments for faculty, and oversee campus endowments.
Advocates for institutional governing boards with greater institutional autonomy point to the inherent differences between institutional boards and system boards. System boards are, by their inherent nature, regulatory boards; their function is to balance the interests of all the institutions in the system. As such, they incline toward “one size fits all” policies. Rarely visiting individual campuses, system boards lack firsthand knowledge of the institutions; the decisions they make are largely shaped by information provided by the system offices and by the leaders of the system. System board members are not supposed to be advocates for individual campuses, though, given the geographic distribution that is generally sought in their appointment, they frequently are. While they may recognize the importance of their flagship institutions, they often view the claims of flagships as arrogant, and, in many cases, refuse or are strongly urged not to use the term “flagship.”
In contrast to system boards, institutional boards can be advocates for their universities, resembling more closely the functions of the boards of private universities. They are more familiar with the campus; they are in a position to evaluate more effectively evaluate the campus leadership as well as to understand the pressures and challenges under which it operates. As advocates of the university, they can be more involved in raising money from private sources.
Entering this discussion about the future and efficacy of university systems is a new volume of essays edited by Jason E. Lane and D. Bruce Johnstone, entitled Higher Education Systems 3.0: Harnessing Systemness, Delivering Performance.  Most of the authors have either held leadership positions in public university systems or are scholars who have devoted much of their attention to university systems. As the title indicates, the volume proposes a new version of university systems that will guide the role of university systems to meet future needs.
Some authors recognize the problems university systems have created for themselves. Jason Lane writes, “In many ways, systems have become very functional, but not very strategic. They have become bureaucracies, not leaders, conduits for communication, not agenda setters.”
Katharine C. Lyall, former president of the University of Wisconsin System, is even more direct in acknowledging the failures of systems to address the needs of flagships:
"In many ways, attempts by several flagships … to separate from their respective systems after the Great Recession began to evidence the growing tensions between institutional leaders who are attempting to respond to market challenges and opportunities but who feel constrained by what is often perceived as outdated governance and financial models. These cases illustrate a larger frustration that systems no longer help campus leaders obtain funds, buffer them from government intrusion and demands or compete with other universities for faculty members and research monies. They feel caught in regional orientations and structures while trying to compete in national and global venues. Systems, seemingly caught flatfooted by these wider visions for their campus, have responded by challenging or removing innovative presidents to protect traditional system power rather than using these ideas to fashion new missions for both system and campus."
Most of the essays in this volume suggest ways in which university systems need to change to adapt to new realities and provide the means by which they can better serve their constituent institutions and states. But few of the essays, other than those of Lyall and C. Judson King (a co-author with Birgeneau of the paper on modernizing governance in UC), seem to recognize to the unique problems of the flagship universities in systems or their singular importance.
Observers of American higher education have often attributed its success to the diversity of its universities, the mixture of private and public research and graduate institutions, the relative autonomy from state intervention, and the competitive market in which it has operated.
For most of the half century after the Second World War, the great public research universities of the United States, the flagship institutions in their states, succeeded in that environment, despite many constraints. Public research universities have been an essential component in the success of American higher education. During the past two decades, however, they have faced unprecedented challenges – growing enrollments, declining state funds, faculty salaries lagging far behind their private competitors.
While no one wants to see an unconstrained conflict among institutions within the states or to have the flagships beggar their neighbors, the future success of public research universities is essential to the well-being of the nation. It is time to ask whether their excellence can be maintained if they remain coupled to systems of governance created in a different time, within a different context, for different purposes.
Robert M. Berdahl is chancellor emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley and former interim president of the University of Oregon. Steven B. Sample is president emeritus of the University of Southern California and the State University of New York at Buffalo. Raquel M. Rall is a Ph.D. candidate in Urban Education Policy at USC’s Rossier School of Education.