When Systems Evolve

Missing from the debate over governance in Wisconsin and elsewhere is an important fact, writes Daniel J. Julius: The relationship between flagships and states has never been set in stone.

June 3, 2011

Recent events in Wisconsin draw into sharp relief the dilemmas faced by systems -- particularly where land grant institutions are involved. While independence for the University of Wisconsin at Madison is now unlikely, a key fact has been overlooked. Whether the current structures in Wisconsin and elsewhere are ideal or seriously flawed, they have not been historically set in stone, and in fact reflect significant changes in mission and governance in most states.

We can say with certainty that since Colonial days, colleges and universities have been engaged in an evolutionary process. Small sectarian colleges educating clergy have become large secular universities; local teachers colleges have become regional and in some cases national universities. The land-grant institutions themselves have undergone a transformation unimagined by their founders: from colleges focused on finding cures to oak smut and better mining or agricultural techniques to international conglomerates with budgets in the billions, selective admission standards, thousands of faculty -- many funded with federal, not state, dollars raised through grants and contracts -- and branch campuses throughout the world.

It is still not clear whether the growth and development of college and university systems following the post WWII era are the result of enlightened and strong leadership or of more mundane political factors. Like the nature vs. nurture debate, the truth lies in between, and the complex organizational systems that exist today in Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and many other states are the result of a host of factors.

They include the need to spend tax dollars in more egalitarian ways, a commitment to open access, the value of advanced degrees in the upward mobility of new middle classes, the diversification and democratization of higher education, economic efficiency and the accommodation of large numbers of students, workforce development, and the adult and continuing educational movements. Politically, these systems reflect the relative strengths of geographic interests in states (rural vs. urban), philosophical differences (egalitarian vs. elitist), and political traditions (the relative value placed on public education and the willingness to use tax dollars for it).

These factors have all played a role. Just as the canal owners and operators fought the expansion of railroads in the late 1800s, so too did a number of academic constituencies argue against the establishment of large public systems. Like other societal movements and developments, in industry, entertainment, communications, government and other nonacademic sectors, the seeds of discontent and related factors that would lead to the dissolution of systems, corporate conglomerates and the like were inevitably sown in the earliest phases of growth.

For example, the desire to emulate the "flagship" led to the clamor for and growth of professional schools and advanced degrees in branch campuses or regional campuses originally designed to promote an articulation function to the "mother" university. Today, in many systems, there are emerging powerhouses that seek greater autonomy, generating pressures which may lead to restructuring.

The sentiment, commonly heard at flagship institutions, that public institutions in other cites are taking precious resources away from the research institution, is a common refrain, almost as ubiquitous as is the disdain for the wasteful practices and regulatory interference manifested by those in the "Office of the Chancellor or President." The difficulty in unraveling reality from myth is borne from the fact there is some truth to many of the arguments marshaled in defense of one course of action or another.

In addition, many participants in these debates are not using the same definitions or databases and have different perceptions of the "mission" of a particular campus, as well as varying notions of how best to serve student populations. Moreover, large numbers of faculty members throughout state systems endeavor to recreate the kinds of institutions (replete with lighter workloads and graduate classes) where they obtained their advanced degrees. Lastly, there is the constant pressure of ranking systems, the drive to be more competitive and autonomous, to look like something or someone thought to be better, and, of course, all the while maintaining a “we are unique” mantra.

The perfect political storm in Wisconsin, with a world-class public system, exposed all the fracture points inherent in a system with 12 four-year institutions, 13 two-year colleges and a UW extension unit. A new governor, convinced by lobbyists from many parts of the state, including Madison, that a land-grant Institution does not belong in a system with institutions in Oshkosh, or Milwaukee, let alone Whitewater or Falls River, offered autonomy in what was spun as a budget proposal detaching the flagship from the system. The chancellor, along with many faculty at Madison, argued that they are capable of maintaining and sustaining independent and autonomous status, and they jumped at the opportunity when the governor proposed his plan. After all, they believe they can better serve the interests of the state as an independent institution, and the lure to be free of system regulations, raise their own funding, and determine their own future may have been a long-sought-after goal among some constituencies -- who, one suspects, did not want to be in the system in the first place.

Other universities in Wisconsin did not go along quietly, and argued that the system is greater than the sum of its parts, students are better served through statewide coordinating efforts, and symbiotic relationships are far preferable to outright and wild competition that will ensue once the system is separated. Institutions in the outlying areas of the state are not sure they will be able to compete successfully. Without attachment to the University of Wisconsin, some branch campuses might have a pretty rough road ahead; others may flourish and become real competitors for Madison.

What is unfolding in Wisconsin is not unique. Other systems have made realignments or lost institutional members, although not quite on the same scale as Wisconsin has proposed. It has happened or been proposed in Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota (where three systems were merged), and other locales. More important, perhaps, are the political, economic and educational conditions causing significant tension in systems. One of these is collective bargaining, where branch campuses choose to unionize and flagship faculties generally do not. The processes and dynamics of unionization cause differences in approach to compensation, workload, the management of conflict, and other important aspects of institutional life, often resulting in an exacerbation of the differences between the faculty at the flagship campus and the others where faculty choose unionization.

Another factor is the real decline in state support. Campuses such as Penn State, some in the University of California system, and others around the nation now receive less than 20 percent, and in some cases only 10 percent, of operating funds from state legislatures, while this is not typically the case for regional campuses. At the same time, these campuses, adjusting to new financial realities, are often precluded from raising tuition, even though their student populations would probably withstand higher tuitions. Conversely, many flagships have other means, through patent development, technology transfer, alumni and federal research grants, lucrative sports contracts, distance education and the like, to generate revenue.

The land-grant mission is harder to sustain in many states, resulting in sustained pressure on schools of agriculture, mining, forestry, fisheries, and extension services. For those institutions that were able to get into the game early, and negotiated profitable contracts with agribusiness and seafood industries that resulted in revenue streams, problems are not as salient. However, for institutions in states without robust agricultural and fishing environments, the pressure to serve these sectors has increased, while revenues from states legislators, despite the rhetorical support for such industries, are not forthcoming.

Then there is the collapse of the enforcement of state higher education coordination plans and other policies that purport to draw lines between institutions or constrain the growth of institutions within the state. For reasons having to do with demand, aspiration and in some cases a lessening of central authority (due to the enhanced of autonomy of select institutions), mission creep is common. A health and science complex is envisioned for a state university in the fastest-growing city in the state, the state college out west wants a law or pharmacy school, a portion of federal funds is redirected to outlying branch campuses, and professional doctorates, first in education and nursing, give way to those in biology and psychology at campuses that were once supposed to restrict graduate education to a few master’s degrees.

Last, the culture of large segments of faculty at flagship institutions is not the same as that found in newer comprehensive institutions. Hierarchical decision-making is less evident, governance and shared authority is more robust, there is greater departmental autonomy, and faculty have scholarly and consulting opportunities not available to those at the state college. Budgets, student life, risk assessment, security, the maintenance of facilities -- particularly research facilities -- recruitment of faculty and administrators from different pools, and the “cosmopolitan” versus “local” orientation of employees all contribute to very different campus cultures, which are sometimes held together very tenuously and need only an immediate crisis to fracture.

Considering this history doesn’t mean that autonomy is the best path forward for Madison. But can it really be surprising that educators there want a change? Alternatively, the financial pressures inherent in the new normal may lead some states to impose greater system control in the interest of economies of scale, eliminating duplication. Finally, system fragmentation, if not dissolution, may result from the encouragement of entrepreneurial schools with greater freedom to offer market attractive programs raising tuition revenues to replace state shortfalls.

Not long ago it was inconceivable that US Steel, Ma Bell or General Motors would ever break up. Faced with growing international competition, a changing legal environment, fewer tax dollars, a decline in real wealth, expensive union contracts, redundancy in operational units, and the loss of confidence by the American public, these industrial giants inevitably came undone. Will the same occur with large state systems?


Daniel J. Julius is vice president for academic affairs for the University of Alaska System.


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