Public University Systems

A Checklist for Success

By Thomas C. Meredith    //    Volume 22,  Number 5   //    September/October 2014

University systems and their roles are never-ending topics of conversation. Some people believe their system should exert more control and keep everyone in line while creating more efficiencies. With quite the opposite view, there are those who believe their system should get out of the way and just file necessary reports for the universities. Neither view represents an appropriate approach for systems, but a legitimate purpose can be defined—one that can provide many advantages for a state—using the extraordinary talent and intellectual resources on several campuses while, at the same time, preserving the concept of institutional autonomy.

It certainly is not news to say these are challenging times for most of higher education. Except for a few places, state funding for higher education is still a long way from where it was in 2008. Enrollment growth has slowed at many institutions as the era of lower birth rates is bubbling through education. Those trends, coupled with public unease with tuition increases and greater demands to move more students through to graduation, are driving colleges and universities to come up with creative solutions and to take a hard look at their business models.

Meanwhile, who is looking out for the interests of the state? Who is making sure institutions aren’t reverting back to take only those who can afford to go or who have the greatest chances for success? Who is planning for the future of higher education in each state so it can be as efficient as possible and provide the highest quality education to move the state forward for its citizens? A system can provide all of this for a state if its role is properly identified.

Systems came into being under the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This belief still holds true today if systems have appropriate and well-defined responsibilities and exercise good judgment in imposing restraints on themselves. In addition, a system board is in the distinct position of having a broad perspective regarding the needs of the state.

Indeed, systems and their institutions are crucial for a state’s success. For example, who better to put together a long-range plan to support small businesses in a state than a task force with major involvement from business schools? Who better to study the health-care needs of a state than university medical-school leadership and finance and economics faculty members? The best experts in the state who are charged with always being up-to-date in their fields reside on university campuses. Yet no one institution will ever focus on the state’s needs like a system has the freedom and obligation to do. The system office can and should use the talented experts on every campus to help solve problems and provide creative solutions. The system head and board should maximize the potential capability and responsibility of each system institution.

Rule number one for a system office is to never fall under the spell that it is the center of the universe and that all things related to higher education revolve around it. The delicate balance between having the power and being judicious in the use of that power is the key to good system board governance. The system office should first be viewed as a facilitator instead of a gatekeeper or overseer. At the same time, however, the governing board of the system is the final authority and will ultimately be held accountable for the system and institutions within it.

To achieve that balance, the governing board of a system must stay focused on the big picture and the system’s broad, overarching goals. Each institution must be given great latitude in determining the process to be used in achieving system goals. The resources available and the caliber of students being admitted, among other things, dictate different paths to a solution.

So, given all of this, how can a system and its board best serve the state, its citizens, and its students while giving each institution as much autonomy as possible?

I’ve provided a checklist of the essential and fundamental responsibilities, functions, and obligations of an effective system of public universities, divided into key categories.

Administrative and General Issues

The system governing board should hire the right person as the system head and—upon the recommendation of the system head and with ample input from campus constituents—hire the campus presidents. Those are the first and the most crucial duties of the board. If the board hires the right people in these positions, their other responsibilities will fall in line. Research on institutional and student success demonstrates that leadership is key, and the governing board of the system has a major role to play in developing and supporting effective leaders.

The board should annually assess the system head and make decisions regarding his or her contract and compensation. Evaluations should be for the sole purpose of improvement. The system head should, in turn, annually assess the leadership of the campuses and make recommendations to the board regarding contracts and compensation. A comprehensive assessment of the chancellor and the presidents should be conducted every three to five years.

The system board must view itself in partnership with the system head about all matters involving the system. The whole concept of integrated leadership produces a well-run and productive system.

The system board, with input from the system head and campus presidents, should set the direction for the system through a system strategic plan. The plan should be clear, focused, and concise, as well as doable within a defined time frame for each goal. The governing board should receive a report on a quarterly basis or, at the very least, twice a year concerning the progress of the system toward fulfillment of the plan.

The system board should approve each campus’s strategic plan, which should support the overall plan. Each institution should be given latitude in the process it uses to reach its goals and the system’s goals. The system and its board should value institutional autonomy whenever possible.

The system should establish a uniform data collection and analysis system that enhances management decisions and accountability. This will also build trust among institutions. The data to be collected must be in a format for informed decision making by the board. Data collection in and of itself is a waste of time if the data are not used to study trends and for comparisons to peer institutions. For example, the data collected should tell the system board how an institution stacks up to its peers by looking at the number of administrators, faculty members, and staff members per 100 full-time students. The board should be able to see the relative position of the various institutions in terms of income, expenditures, salaries, and the like.

The system board should provide oversight of risk management for the system. Governing boards should know the high-risk areas of the system and the individual institutions within it and be given assurances that plans are in place to address those areas.

The person responsible for answering legal questions within the system should reside in the system office. Large, complex universities within the system may have their own small legal staff that should report to the system lawyer.

The system office should encourage and initiate collaboration while recognizing naturally competitive areas like student recruitment and fundraising. The system should call on the experts on each campus to assist with the development of common plans, processes, and procedures—task forces on human resources, technology, and the like. The system should also lead in the discovery of best practices on the individual campuses that can be shared, as well as arrange and host meetings of campus leaderships groups (presidents, provosts, chief financial officers, and so on) to encourage mutual problem solving.

The system office should coordinate the marketing and branding for the system and its institutions. However, each institution should develop and carry out its own marketing while following the system’s branding. The system governing board and office should build a sense of unity and pride for being a part of the system.


The system should establish uniform accounting and financial processes and procedures. This produces a mutual trust among institutions and provides a sound basis for decision making. Data submitted to the board can produce policies that will affect an institution—for instance, they will play a role in an institution’s funding allocation. Thus, there should be a comfort level that the data submitted are consistent and the playing field is level. Only a system board can provide that comfort.

The system governing board should establish procedures for developing and pursuing a unified request for funding to give to the governor and the legislature. This position of unity provides a more powerful approach, helps fulfill an important role of the system, provides equity for the system’s institutions that have the least influence, and is another step in encouraging institutions to work together. Systems should treat all institutions in the system equitably but not necessarily equally because of different responsibilities, expectations, and access to resources. Institutions that primarily instruct undergraduates with little in terms of research requirements have a different cost structure than institutions that have a major research role. In addition, those two types of institutions have different capabilities in terms of raising private dollars and garnering research grants. Equity vs. equality is a real-world dilemma with which boards must grapple.

The system should establish, and its board should approve, an equitable distribution formula that provides a clear and fair mechanism for the distribution of state-appropriated dollars. Some portion of the dollars that systems distribute should be based on performance. The mechanism should include factors that encourage desired outcomes. For example, some states have moved the time frame for counting student credit hours produced from an early enrollment period in a semester to the end of the semester in hopes of incentivizing institutions to encourage and help students successfully complete the semester. Although that amount will vary significantly across states, the important point is to provide some monetary incentive to accomplish system goals for the state.

The system should oversee financial audits. Larger and more-complex institutions may have auditors located on their campuses who should report to the system-level lead auditor. The system audit function should not only focus on compliance, but also on assisting institutions in finding more efficient ways to do their business.

The system office should provide state-wide leadership in identifying potential efficiencies throughout the system with the assistance of campus expertise. It should establish a system-wide task force to explore opportunities for shared services. That would include purchasing and contracts, for example. The University System of Georgia and the University of Alabama System, where I have served as chancellor, are examples of systems that have made headway in those areas.

The system board should approve all construction and significant renovation plans, but only in terms of financing, exterior design, location, and need by the system, the institution, and the state. Financing should factor in the ability to pay and the long-term debt of the institution. Whenever feasible, the system should negotiate to have system projects placed on a fast track.


The system board should approve all new academic programs and the creation of new centers, institutes, and the like. Its approval should be based upon: 1) the needs of the state or region, 2) the financial ability of the requesting institution to provide appropriate support, 3) the institution’s mission, and 4) the quality of the program. That quality should be determined by an outside expert in the field. It is unreasonable and financially impossible to have a system staff with the breadth of expertise to adequately assess the quality of every proposed program brought before the board. The review and approval process should be completed in an expedited manner (60 to 90 days, maximum) to enable institutions to respond to perceived needs on a timely basis.

The system office should monitor the viability of approved programs in terms of demand and need. After a reasonable time, good faith efforts that have proved unsuccessful should be ceased.

The system should facilitate the ease of academic transfer between institutions within the system as well as other institutions. A carefully selected task force should forge a liberal articulation policy.

The system should take the lead in its state’s P-20 efforts. Most of the system’s students come from their state elementary and secondary schools, and most of that state’s teachers and administrators come from the system’s institutions. The system office has the ability to involve all essential parties in this vital endeavor.

The system should develop a common format for application for institutional admissions and financial aid. Each institution should have the freedom to add additional questions to the common format. All unnecessary hurdles should be removed for students wanting a college education. First-generation students are easily discouraged when encountering a complicated process.

The system office should lead the system in identifying the most effective and efficient ways to provide instruction. As part of that, it should make sure that the various institutions’ online offerings are compatible and support each other. Expertise from within the system and outside should identify best practices that can be shared and considered. That could take the form of a well-publicized competition among the institutions in the categories of administrative, academic, student services, and technology.

The system, with institutional input, should devise a process for assuring the public about the quality of the academic offerings at the system’s institutions—as well as the quality of its graduates.

The system office should not play a significant role in the academic research efforts of the system’s institutions except to be supportive, encourage collaboration where appropriate, and receive assurances that the research being conducted by each institution is consistent with its mission and that the money invested is not out of bounds with instructional expenditures.


A system office can be a valuable asset to a state by bringing into concert the many talents and resources found on each campus in the system to help the state meet its current and future needs. It can also make sure that the resources provided by the state and the students at the institutions are used wisely.

The system should help identify the economic and other needs of the state and then find collaborative ways to address those needs through the expertise found on the campuses. A close working relationship with political leaders, economic-development leaders, and leaders of statewide chambers of commerce or similar organizations not only will produce this information but will also forge new partnerships that will demonstrate the essential nature of higher education. A much greater integration of higher education with the public produces significant benefits for both sides.


The system should present a unified voice to the governor and the legislature on all matters.

The system board and system head should advocate for all of the institutions and the system.

The system board should take every available opportunity to publicly recognize and celebrate accomplishments within the system and its institutions. Advocacy and support for the system head and the presidents are essential as they take bold steps to make a difference.


The system board and office should make transparency and communication its hallmarks. The highest ethical standards must be practiced by the system board.

Systems and their boards should not try to hide problems in their performance or that of individual institutions.

The board should ask for key data points and evidence of institutional and student success and effective use of resources, and be willing to share that information publicly.

The system board should regularly evaluate its bylaws and policies to make sure they are still viable.

The system board should regularly conduct a formal self-assessment by an outside resource. The assessment should not only address the system work of the board but also the work of the board itself. A close look by the board at how it conducts its business can keep its work on the right track.

The system board has a responsibility to conduct its business in an exemplary fashion. Every meeting should be a model for how intelligent and dedicated adults handle the business that impacts so many people.

Some Basics about Governing Board Systems

There are 57 governing board systems in the United States today whose institutions enroll approximately 76 percent of all public college and university students.

Some governing board systems contain only a few of the public institutions within a state (Alabama and Missouri), while others may include all of the public universities in a state (Mississippi).

Some may cover not only all of the four-year universities in a state, but also all of the state’s public community colleges (Georgia and North Dakota). There are also public university systems that allow local institutional boards with limited powers (North Carolina and Pennsylvania).

Governing board systems should not be confused with coordinating boards or agencies that have limited powers and authority. As the name implies, these boards attempt to coordinate the activities of the various system boards or local boards. However, they typically have programmatic approval power. To complicate the matter even more, some state-wide boards are hybrids with some governing authority and some coordinating responsibility (Kentucky).

Generally, the main determinant in deciding if a board is a governing board is whether it hires, terminates, and sets the pay of the campus president(s).

A number of governing boards have their roots in their states’ constitutions. In several instances, that came about as retaliation for extreme political intrusion.

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