Wednesday, June 08, 2011


Consolidating Boards

Several alert readers sent along info that Connecticut and Rhode Island are considering streamlining their internal education governance systems, presumably to save money. Connecticut’s proposal involves combining oversight of community colleges, state colleges, and compass direction universities in a single board. (UConn would remain separate.) Rhode Island’s is more ambitious, combining every level of public education from K-12 through the University of Rhode Island.

The upside of proposals like these is a small short-term cost savings. Boards don’t teach or provide front-line services, so I would expect the usual critics of “administrative bloat” to be happy. But oooof, I’d be leery of moving forward on either.

As I understand it, these both refer to statewide governing boards, as opposed to boards of trustees of individual campuses. I’m not sure how or whether those would be affected. Consolidating or supplanting those would be disastrous; trustees need to identify strongly enough with a given institution to be effective fundraisers for it. That’s simply not going to happen when you replace a single institution with an entire system.

Even at a purely governance level, though, the complexity of the issues facing public higher ed requires people who both understand the details and have the emotional self-control not to try to micromanage them.

That’s hard to do with a single institution. It’s that much harder with a statewide system. (Admittedly, that distinction may not mean much in Rhode Island.) It’s harder still with multiple statewide systems operating at different levels.

I’ll use myself as an example. After over a decade in college administration -- most of it in community colleges -- I feel pretty confident in saying that I’m conversant in many of the key issues facing community colleges in my state. When I meet with my counterparts from different parts of the state, I know what they’re dealing with and vice versa.

Four-year state colleges have some similarities, but they deal with residential student life. That -- thank goodness -- is not part of my world. The flagship state university deals with graduate programs, major research funding, dorms, and high-profile intercollegiate athletics; again, none of that is within my expertise. And when I took a more active interest in the local K-12 district this Spring, I couldn’t help but notice that nearly everything I knew was useless. The funding model is completely different, student recruitment is a non-issue, and they have a bus fleet. Snarky jokes aside, graduate students and five-year-olds have very different needs.

I can’t imagine a single Board being intelligently aware of the issues at every level. (And that’s before even addressing the different labor unions, accreditations, mandates, etc. that are unique to each level.) By necessity, the Boards would go in one of two directions: either ridiculous, one-size-fits-all policy pronouncements that land with thuds at some levels, or heavy delegation, thereby defeating any cost savings.

Yes, multiple layers can look more cumbersome than a single layer. I get that. But rules that don’t make sense are much more cumbersome. You can pay upfront, or you can pay to clean up the damage, but you’re going to pay. Better to get it right the first time. Don’t ask anyone to be an expert on everything from kindergarten to grad school. One level is hard enough.

The "one size fits all" reminds me of my at a Wisconsin community college back in 1998.

Wisconsin has 13 4-year campuses that are part of the UW system. There are another 13 two-year campuses under the "UW Colleges" system. The 4-year campuses are located in the more populated parts of the state, and many of the two-year campuses serve rural areas. (In Wisconsin, rural=white.)

One day, we got together for our UW Colleges system wide student government meeting. They sent a representative from the UW System Headquarters office in Madison. She was a black lady wearing traditional African garb, discussing the ten-year diversity campaign that the System was embarking on.

What struck us all as odd was that they had an African woman addressing 25 white kids, all from campuses in rural areas and small towns where there just isn't much of a minority population. And given that community colleges generally are not destination campuses (or whatever the term is for drawing from a non-local population) we just weren't sure what they expected us to do.

So, chock one up for the "one size fits all" policy that came from the higher levels that made absolutely no sense when implemented in all of the trenches.
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I appreciate that consolidating educational governing boards does not sound like appealing option for those working in local schools. It is, however, an attempt to cut costs, which is sorely needed. As of this morning the national debt was $14.4 trillion, and rapidly growing. Federal, state, and local governing districts are struggling with shrinking budgets, as tax revenue diminishes in the stagnating economy.

Given the start reality, I ask those who oppose consolidation, or any other cost savings measures, where’s the money going to come from to support the status quo? How about, for example, the wife and husband who own a small delivery company with four employees? Fuel prices are up, along with health insurance. Should the alternative be to impose more taxes on them?

I’d appreciate if government cost cutting was proactive within the taxpayer-supported institutions; where publicly funded organizations proactively adjust to changing market conditions. Imagine the in-fighting between departments determined to defend their sacred cow programs. Please pass the popcorn!
Oregon was looking at doing something similar, but rumor has it it's dead for now:
I doubt if consolidating two boards into one will save any money. The cost is in the staff operations, and that might have to increase to keep a single board informed on such diverse topics.

Our state has a K-20+ system with a single board that mostly complicates what goes on elsewhere. College Presidents are still hired by each individual colleges' board just as local schools have their own boards. There are still bureaucrats for all levels of curriculum above the district or college level, and I have seen little evidence of any coordination between K-12 and 13+ regarding, say, math readiness for college.
I've been involved in two consolidations, and neither ended up saving money. Both resulted in less transparency and accountability.

Rather than assuming that consolidation reduces expenses, which seems to be an act of faith among certain commentators, I'd say that the onus is on the person proposing the change to show how it will, in fact, save money while not adversely impacting service.
Re: Anonymous
The unfortunate brutal reality is that tax revenue is decreasing everywhere, so goes the inevitable funding cuts. Yes, it's painful. However, if the administrators and staff are incapable, or unwilling to make the hard fiscal choices in response to changing economic circumstances, then the tough decisions (i.e. board consolidations) will be made top-down for them by politicians, who are elected by an increasingly unhappy taxpaying public.
Adam, the unfortunate reality is that there is a great deal of mismanagement, waste, fraud, and lack of transparency in many public university boards & administrations, and making those boards less connected to the constituents they serve (by consolidating several boards into one) does not help.

Case in point - today, we learned that my University spends nearly $9000/month on cars for about a dozen admins (most of whom live on or near campus). Meantime, they are demanding wage cuts for the lowest-paid teaching staff which comprises half of the instructional staff and accounts for half of the credit hour production on campus. We can, and will, push back - hard - on this, but that would be much tougher to do if we had some sort of consolidated, state-wide board.

You want to save money? Get rid of all the stupid administrative boondoggles, first. Then we can discuss removing boards, etc.
Thanks for sharing the great insight. I couldn't agree more. What a shameful waste of money.
DD: As I understand it, these both refer to statewide governing boards, as opposed to boards of trustees of individual campuses... Consolidating or supplanting those would be disastrous; trustees need to identify strongly enough with a given institution to be effective fundraisers for it. That’s simply not going to happen when you replace a single institution with an entire system.

The current Rhode Island system already has the (state-wide) community college, the 4-year state college, and the research university governed by the same board. AFAIK, there are not individual campus boards of trustees. The consequence DD mentions - not identifying strongly with an individual campus and thus not being advocates - describes past college/trustees experiences in Rhode Island fairly accurately.

I agree with Adam that expenses need to be kept in check. +1 with other anonymous commentators who pointed out that the proposed actions may not actually save any money and will likely cost additional money instead.
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