T’Ship 101: Autonomy and the Pursuit of Innovative Solutions

By Susanne Svizeny and Eleanor V. Horne    //    Volume 19,  Number 1   //    January/February 2011

We have reached a moment in the history of American public higher education when bold actions are necessary. The status quo is simply not sustainable given the challenges we face. States are disinvesting in higher education across the nation, yet expectations of increased institutional productivity and performance abound.

Alarmed by the rapidly increasing cost of tuition, many lawmakers have suggested that tighter regulation and stricter oversight are the answers. The problems, however, cannot be solved through a regulatory approach. Colleges and universities must and do strive for increased efficiency, but public institutions need the autonomy to nimbly pursue strategies and innovations that will strengthen their ability to deliver on their distinct missions.

In 1994, the governance of New Jersey’s public colleges and universities became among the most progressive in the nation. The state’s Higher Education Restructuring Act granted a high degree of self-governance to individual institutions, giving them the freedom to make decisions related to mission; academic programming; admissions, budget, and personnel; tuition and fees; management of property; and purchasing and contracting, among other activities. Since that time, the institutions’ achievements have been extraordinary.

At The College of New Jersey, where we serve as trustees, increased autonomy has improved our operations and performance, allowing us to transform the curriculum, adding depth and breadth to our teaching. It has also facilitated the revamping or addition of academic programs, such as our biomedical engineering and Bonner Community Scholars programs, to address the interests of our students and the needs of our state. The results: In 1985, the college received 4,395 applications for admission and graduated 56 percent of its undergraduates within six years. Today, we receive nearly 10,000 applications annually and graduate nearly 86 percent of our students within six years.

Unfortunately, however, in recent years we have seen some erosion of this institutional autonomy. The public is concerned—and rightly so—about access to, and the affordability of, higher education. Colleges and universities must be judicious with their resources and operate transparently, but the real culprit behind rising tuition bills is the dramatic decline in state financial support for higher education. Yet in response to rising tuition, legislators have instituted arbitrary tuition caps and pressed for additional bureaucracy to oversee such functions as setting institutional missions, eliminating academic programs, and determining employee compensation.

Such restrictive moves are dangerous. Answering to autonomous boards of trustees assures that each college’s most important decisions are approved by an independent group that seeks to support the needs of the state, informed by a full appreciation of the particular institution’s mission and strengths. Our state, and many others, may not be capable presently of providing the fiscal support colleges and universities desire, but the answer is not simplistic solutions to complex problems.

We need not look far for more creative approaches. Our neighbors in New York are discussing a package of regulatory changes that would, among other things, allow its public institutions to engage in more publicprivate partnerships and give them greater control of tuition. Those are the types of positive steps needed for public institutions to maintain quality in the face of reduced public support.

Every crisis brings with it opportunities, and the current economic crisis is no exception. Public institutions should be given the tools necessary to pursue their missions efficiently, responsibly, and thoughtfully—with the autonomy they need to adopt innovative strategies to enhance both educational quality and institutional proficiency. Now is the time to seek new and responsible ways to widen access, improve quality and productivity, reduce expenses, and seek new revenue streams. But statewide agencies and legislative bodies are not in the best position to determine what an institution’s students need or where partnerships or entrepreneurial activities might shore up the revenue base. We must preserve and protect our autonomy if we are to accomplish those goals.

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