The Power of the System

Alexandra W. Logue considers a central question about the governance of public higher education.

May 21, 2010

In what ways can a higher education system — an integrated group of colleges that together constitute one university — benefit the generation and transmission of knowledge? What advantages — what power — accrues to the students and faculty of the colleges comprising the City University of New York, and to other university systems, by virtue of their being part of one organization, and what challenges does such an organization pose? Answering these questions can help systems and their constituent members function so as to generate the most positive results.

The latter part of the 20th century saw the creation of numerous public university systems in the United States. For example, the current form of the University of Texas System was established in 1960, the California State University System in 1961, the City University of New York in 1961, and the University of Wisconsin System in 1971. Together, public university systems enroll 49 percent of all college students in the United States.

CUNY provides a useful illustration of what has worked well as a result of a system structure, what may not have worked so well, and why. CUNY’s structure is typical in many ways, though not all. As the nation’s largest urban public university, CUNY enrolls over 260,000 students in credit-bearing courses offered by 23 units: 11 senior colleges (some offering baccalaureate and graduate programs, and the others offering associate and baccalaureate programs), 6 community colleges (offering only associate programs), and 6 system-wide colleges and professional schools, such as the Graduate School of Journalism, the Law School, and the School of Public Health. The large majority of CUNY students commute, but the number of residence halls is growing. There is a single board of trustees for the entire system, and the New York State Education Department, as well as the New York City and New York State budget offices, treat CUNY as a single university. Yet the colleges are administratively distinct, with most having their own regional accreditation (Middle States Commission on Higher Education) and president. The presidents all report to the system chancellor, Matthew Goldstein. However, unlike most systems, CUNY colleges are in fairly close physical proximity; someone can use public transportation to go between the majority of pairs of colleges within an hour’s time.

Overall, CUNY’s characteristics enable it to function as a more integrated system than is the case for some other systems. Perhaps for that reason, CUNY system administrators continuously examine the system’s functioning to assess whether they are fostering the optimal amount of centralization.

The Benefits of Being Part of a System

There are a great many benefits to being part of a system. For example, to the degree that CUNY’s units serve different populations, both in terms of types of programs and levels of student preparation, the system as a whole can serve a much greater range of students and disciplines than any one institution could serve on its own. Related to this benefit, an individual college need not provide a particular program if another college provides it — individual colleges can focus on their own niches. So, although it would be inconceivable for CUNY not to provide undergraduate engineering programs, the fact that they are not offered at Hunter College is not a concern because they are a subway ride away at City College.

CUNY is planning a new community college that will require all first-year students to attend full-time. Although, system-wide, 80 percent of first-year students at community colleges attend full-time, the new community college’s requirement for first-year students will, to some degree, limit who can attend. However, students who wish to attend part-time will have the option of enrolling at one of CUNY’s six other community colleges, which do enroll such students. Chancellor Goldstein has gone so far as to say that the new community college should be designed from the start so as to make the most of the “power” of the CUNY system. By structuring the new community college from the very beginning with good articulation agreements with other system units, and taking advantage of community relationships already built up by existing units, the new community college will put students on educational paths and provide them with employment opportunities that no community college operating in isolation could do.

With regard to levels of student preparation, the CUNY system’s size and diversity permit it to offer appropriate educational experiences for students who have from the minimum to the best preparation. For example, CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College admits a relatively small number of top students jointly with some of the senior colleges and is thus able to offer those students an experience that is unusually intensive and challenging, even in comparison to some of the most selective colleges in the United States.

Other advantages of internal system differentiation may be less obvious. Just as individual variation benefits a species during times of environmental change and stress, so too program and level differentiation can benefit a university system during times of change. For instance, in a system with internal differentiation, if the central office wishes to try something new, it is more likely that there will be a unit willing and able to experiment than if the system is internally uniform. Some CUNY colleges are investigating new, university-initiated, ways of teaching mathematics, others incentives to increase hybrid courses, and others ways to increase the use of e-books. It would be difficult for any one college to be involved in all of this simultaneously, even if the administration and faculty of such a college could be persuaded of the benefits of all of these investigations. However, to the degree that these innovations do succeed, the strategy of starting with just a few colleges will build support for expanding the innovations to other colleges; if they do not succeed, CUNY can move forward without having changed practices across the board.

Students also benefit from a comprehensive system because they can pursue a range of disciplines from entry to the most advanced levels. Specific articulation agreements and dual admissions programs can be established so that students can move seamlessly from, say, an associate’s program to a bachelor’s program, or from a bachelor’s to a master’s program. Such arrangements may be brokered by the central office, if necessary, and, in the case of undergraduate programs, may be facilitated by the establishment of a common core curriculum. Further, students at the different levels can interact in ways beneficial to all: doctoral students can teach (and learn how to teach) in a wide variety of undergraduate programs, including in those types of undergraduate settings in which they are most likely to find jobs, and undergraduate and graduate students can work in research teams with faculty in a wide variety of disciplines.

Faculty also obtain distinct benefits by being part of a university system. Although there may be one or just a few faculty specializing in a particular area at any one college, across the system there may be many, providing opportunities for productive discussions and collaborations. A system’s central office can encourage such interactions by, first, funding hiring initiatives that place members of a particular discipline at different system institutions, and then by providing forums — physical as well as virtual — to foster their interactions. CUNY has recently done this, for example, in demography, with the hiring of eight faculty across four colleges, resulting in the founding of the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research, composed of faculty from a total of six different colleges. CUNY also conducts conferences with speakers that a single college would have an insufficient audience to justify, offers workshops in which many faculty share best practices such as pedagogical techniques for mathematics instruction, supports disciplinary councils in which the chairs of similar departments convene, and has established an Academic Commons, a Web site that is specifically designed to enhance faculty interactions. The CUNY system’s consortial model of doctoral education, in which faculty from many colleges participate in the education of doctoral students based at CUNY’s Graduate Center, has proven extremely effective in bringing together the knowledge and energy of large numbers of experts for the benefit of CUNY’s doctoral students. There is also a university-wide faculty senate that offers faculty opportunities to work together on common issues.

College administrators also benefit from the CUNY system structure. For example, the CUNY system administration organizes multiple types of administrative councils in which people holding similar administrative positions at the different colleges meet on a regular, usually monthly, basis. These councils include ones for presidents, chief academic officers (CAOs), chief administrative officers, chief student affairs officers, enrollment managers, registrars, institutional research directors, chief librarians, and many others. The council meetings provide ample opportunities for discussion of policies and best practices. In addition, these meetings can be excellent settings for facilitating problem-solving, which often works best when groups of people discuss solutions rather than one person trying to find a solution by him- or herself. In at least one case, that of the CAOs, a listserv and a web site have been established to facilitate these administrators’ communications and to provide them with a variety of online resources that would be difficult to gather on their own. These supports are particularly useful to administrators who are new to their positions.

The existence of a central system office provides a panoply of additional possible benefits for the system units. For example, the system can establish a single data warehouse that helps provide, using a single methodology, the information that individual colleges need for decision making, self-assessment, and some peer comparisons. In fact, a college’s comparisons to one of its sibling colleges may spur it on to greater achievements. The close to 300 percent increase in fund raising at CUNY during the past five years has been attributed not only to the significant positive consequences accruing to the presidents of colleges who raise significant funds, but also to healthy competition among the presidents, who are aware of each others’ fund raising totals. There are additional electronic advantages, such as the ability to establish online library resources available to all colleges. Group purchasing power can be brought to bear on items such as administrative software, computers, photocopiers, and even insurance. Some services, such as basic academic skills testing, instructional laboratory design, and labor contract management, can be provided system-wide and thus at a much lower cost and much higher level of expertise than would ordinarily be available to any single college. Negotiations with city and state budget officials can also be far more efficient and effective when the university speaks as one voice. A single university brand and a unified marketing campaign, when added to individual college campaigns, can likewise provide impact beyond what an individual college could accomplish on its own. In fact, any communication with the world outside of the university — with the media, with government, with prospective students and employees, etc. — can have more strength and authority when a large university system speaks. The ability to share facilities—meeting/conference facilities, high-end science laboratories, performance spaces, faculty housing, and the like — is yet another advantage.

The central office may also establish policies that can benefit the entire system, policies such as uniform standards of academic quality, goals, accountability mechanisms, and incentives. A particular advantage for the central administration of a large and complex system is the ability to conduct research on educational practices. When a system is large and complex, it is often possible to compare the results of an innovation with what is going on elsewhere in the system — there are built-in comparison groups. In such situations it is possible to conduct quasi-experimental, and even experimental, research that is extremely useful in providing evidence to guide administrators in allocation of time, money, and other resources so as to best benefit students and faculty. For example, CUNY first conducted a quasi-experimental study of its program called ASAP (Accelerated Study of Associate Programs), which is funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Commission for Economic Opportunity (CEO). This study showed large positive effects of ASAP on retention and graduation rates of associate degree students, and so CUNY is now conducting a randomized assignment experiment of ASAP with funding by the Helmsley and Robin Hood Foundations, in addition to the CEO. The experiment involves close to 1,000 participant students spread over three of the six CUNY community colleges involved in ASAP.

The Challenges of Being Part of a System

However, the effects of being part of a system are not all beneficial. Challenges also exist. What one part of the system does can affect other parts of the system. Sometimes this helps the rest of the system, as when one college gets a high ranking, but the opposite can also occur. There are also potential regulatory issues. For example, all CUNY colleges share a single federal IRB authorization, so a serious IRB violation at one college could affect all colleges. More subtly, colleges within a system such as CUNY can be affected negatively by other colleges adding or closing programs or changing admissions standards. As an illustration, Chancellor Goldstein has made a priority of increasing standards at the senior colleges, thus enabling more challenging opportunities for increasing numbers of New York City’s well-prepared students.

The current economic crisis and CUNY’s growing reputation have had the combined effect of leading many more people, including well-prepared people, to want to attend CUNY, allowing the CUNY senior colleges to raise their admissions standards. However, these changes have also meant that more students have not been accepted by the senior colleges, and therefore have sought to attend CUNY community colleges, which have already had more applicants and have been showing increased retention rates. The result: a perfect storm of increasing enrollments, particularly in CUNY’s community colleges, such that CUNY is struggling to accommodate the increasing numbers without compromising educational quality. System administrators must constantly consider and anticipate these sorts of interaction effects.

In addition, although intrasystem competition can be healthy and beneficial, it can also become excessive and detrimental. The administrators of college A can feel that college B is receiving resources or attention that could better be devoted to college A. These perceptions may inhibit the ability of the two colleges’ administrators to collaborate on articulation agreements and other joint projects. These perceptions may also result in the colleges becoming more similar to each other (e.g., when one college starts a master’s program that another college has) even though the system as a whole would benefit the most from these colleges serving different functions and thereby populations.

Then there are the complaints sometimes — and occasionally justifiably — made of the university administration by the constituent colleges. The existence of the system and of the central office creates an extra layer of bureaucracy that can impose delays in, or even prevent, a college achieving its self-stated goals. For example, at CUNY it sometimes happens that a college wants to start a new program but the central office, which must review and approve all new programs before they are submitted to the New York State Education Department for its approval, will not approve that new program. Conversely, being part of a system can mean that a college must do something similar to all of the other colleges even though that may not be best for that particular college. One illustration of this at CUNY is a college being required to use certain administrative software even though its own home-grown version is superior.

Further, colleges can feel that people working in a central office, removed as they are from campus life, are out of touch with the actions and needs of the colleges, and may therefore make decisions with incomplete information, decisions that would be much better made by the colleges themselves. People working in a central office may not realize that changes have occurred on campuses. What works at one point in time may not work at another — systems and their constituent units can evolve.

Finally, if there is a — perhaps seemingly hovering — central office, a president may not have all the autonomy he or she would have as president of a freestanding institution. A president of a college within a system may not have final authority over some things, or simply feel that he or she does not have final authority over some things, yet feel held completely accountable for the success of his or her college.

According to Mark Yudof, the president of the University of California system, system administrators need to realize that a system office is not a university office, and college presidents should recognize that their colleges are not the only ones in the system. He goes on to say that systems usually provide more benefit for colleges that have not yet reached their full potential, and that system administrators should recognize that different colleges need different types of support — one size does not fit all.

Expanding on these thoughts, in order to maximize the use of system resources, including system administrators’ time, and to ensure that those with the most information about specific decisions make those decisions, the system office should focus on what it can uniquely do (e.g., facilitating college interactions) and leave to the colleges what they can best do (e.g., deciding which faculty to hire). Further, it is not only central office administrators who need to be cognizant of this balance. College presidents also need to be aware that there are some actions best performed by them and some best performed by a system-wide administration, to the benefit of all. Of course, disagreements about the balance will exist. There will be some college presidents who are largely interested in direct benefits for their own colleges and others who are more attuned to what CUNY’s Chancellor Goldstein calls the integrated university. These latter presidents believe that, ultimately, the enhanced opportunities for partnering offered by an integrated university system will result in maximum benefit for each college.

Generalizing These Observations

Current economic challenges may be encouraging unrelated colleges to collaborate in system-like ways more than was true in the past. Whether or not this is the case, it is important to realize that the concepts described here can apply not only across time, but also across setting, to other constructions of “systems.” For example, some of these concepts can apply to a single-campus university that consists of various schools (arts and sciences, business, law, medicine, etc.). Such universities can also make excellent use of the differentiation, economies of scale, group decision making, and other benefits that university systems can enjoy. At the other end of the scale, it is also possible to envision all American public universities, or all American institutions of higher education, as a system, what might be called the American system of higher education. Within that context some of the benefits — and challenges — discussed for a traditional university system can be found. In fact, many of the concepts discussed here can apply to any situation in which multiple people or units report to, or work with, one person or unit.

All of us in higher education are struggling to keep our engines, our systems, fueled and running during these financially difficult times. We can maximize the engines’ power by being cognizant of the ways in which our university structures both benefit and challenge our reaching our goals. We need to take advantage of the system structures that we have, shape those structures to be most advantageous, and expand our thinking to new types of system structures, so as to best assist our students and faculty. To do that we must think beyond the immediate solutions to presenting problems, and consider how system pieces do and can interrelate.


Alexandra W. Logue is executive vice chancellor and provost of the City University of New York. She is also a professor of psychology at Queens College, and a member of the CUNY doctoral faculty in learning processes and behavior analysis


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