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.