In his recent Trusteeship article, AGB Senior Fellow Kevin Reilly, president emeritus of the University of Wisconsin System, outlines the challenges and opportunities facing public, multi-campus systems in American higher education. These systems drive American democracy forward, enrolling more than half of all postsecondary students in the United States and serving as economic engines by creating a prepared workforce for their states.
With such high aspirations and important responsibilities, these systems are, in Reilly’s words, “too big to fail.”
Yet, in fulfilling their public purpose, these higher education systems confront many challenges, which are reflected in the news today. In the face of declining enrollments and changing student demographics, several systems are considering restructuring—tapping into new business models to revitalize the system and reconnect it to state needs. For other systems, uncertain or diminished state funding make it difficult to plan, grow, and make progress towards institutional goals related to college completion and workforce development. And across the country, in all systems, tensions surrounding affordability, leading to increased scrutiny by external stakeholders, threaten vital aspects of system autonomy and the ability to make decisions free from political intrusion.
To fulfill the public purposes they guard, system heads, system governing boards, and state policymakers must work together to create systems governed with focus, capacity, and independence:
- FOCUS in overseeing the enterprise and ensuring that the entire system is leveraged to meet the needs of the state and its citizens.
- CAPACITY in appointing board members, chancellors, and campus presidents who are knowledgeable, engaged, and committed to the state’s high aspirations for the system.
- INDEPENDENCE in upholding the integrity of the system as free from external influence and political intrusion, reflecting trust between system governing boards, system heads, and state policymakers.
System governing board members and system heads must foster this kind of consequential governance in light of the pressures and challenges facing their systems.