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Bill Tierney

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Rethinking State Systems of Higher Education

There was recently a conference in New York City about systems of higher education. I was supposed to speak but after having my plane cancelled three times, and facing the prospect of spending the night in Buffalo in order to get to NYC, I cancelled.

They had asked me to speak on a panel entitled “Are systems needed?” My sense was that the other folks on the panel were going to answer in the affirmative, so as a thought experiment I wrote a paper thinking about why systems are no longer needed. We had three minutes to begin. Here’s what I would have said:

This session is entitled “Are systems needed?” My answer is “No.” Perhaps they were once needed, but they are a 20th century artifact that now constrains us. Recognize, too, that I live in the most dysfunctional of states—California—that was once known as a place where new ideas, change, and innovation were what we prided ourselves on. Now we cut budgets and bemoan how we cannot change.

I am hard-pressed to assume that if you and I were to create a Master Plan today, to steal a term from a once glorious past, that we would have what we have today.

Recognize, too, that my concern is largely focused on poor kids. I want more poor kids going to college. Sure, I’m concerned about the research capacity of the state—someone has to be concerned, the governor certainly isn’t, but my major focus is on poverty and education as a way out.

With our budget cuts in California the public systems—systems—have largely opted out. Even though we passed Proposition 30 all we did was forestall budget cuts; we didn’t add anything to our capacity.

Each system has said we cannot increase capacity, even though everyone acknowledges that we need about 100,000 students per year more every year for the next decade. And then with the budget cuts we have a system—system—where people cut spending in the same manner.

Should UC Merced cut in the same way that UC Berkeley cuts?  Should we even have a research university next to Yosemite Valley? $500 million state dollars to build a campus for 5,000 students. Really? The system lobbied for that? And now they want another $500 million? Really? The system?

Should Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Dominguez Hills that are adjacent to one another cut their budgets in the same way even though they are vastly different?

At my own institution of USC we have just received a donor’s gift north of $40 million to start a school of dance. The donor is an alum of UCLA and had previously given money to them. She said she couldn’t get anything done across town which is why she came to us. I like USC beating UCLA in sports; I don’t like reading these sorts of things, however, because it suggests that the public institutions are too slow on their collective feet to compete.

We have a cartel where our systems, our professional associations, and accrediting agencies act in lock step with one another and maintain the status quo as we tinker toward oblivion.

If we want institutions to be innovative then the systems that we have devised are not going to bring about the change that is necessary. I see an academic world that is vastly different 20 years from now than we have today. I freely acknowledge the social fact that 75% of our students are in public institutions and 75% of them are in systems.

I also know I am flying in the face of many wise people, such as Rich Novak and Aims McGuiness and many of whom have been mentors to me, like Dennis Jones, and Bruce Johnstone, but internally focused central planning is going to go the way of the Soviet Union. Systems are slow to respond to market demands and become weighted down with internal concerns; over time a system evolves into ineffective bureaucracies that Weber would find familiar. When demands are placed upon them such as finding ways to increase capacity the response is give us more money, even though that’s not forthcoming. Cooperation with the private sector is weak, and rather than be buffered from political interference our public systems are the opposite—there’s too much political interference on itsy bitsy issues. The result is that state priorities take a back seat.

We can try to sustain the system but it no longer serves well the students I work with who deserve a college education.

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