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Higher education unification

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For decades, through the generations Idaho has had more than one university, there’s been the argument that they should be more closely managed as a single system rather than letting them run relatively independently. The idea is that efficiencies can be had, and money saved, without necessarily diminishing services.

In his last state of the state speech at the launch of this year’s Idaho legislative session, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter gave renewed voice to that idea. But will it go any further than it has in the past?
Quite a few states have roughly unified higher education systems; loosely, this is called the “chancellor” system after frequent title of the top official in charge. Typically, the institutions each also continue to have “presidents” although sometimes, confusingly, in some places the top executive is the president and the institution heads are chancellors.

These broader state systems work in a variety of ways, and most states have some version of them. Montana and Nevada, for example, have systems including universities with distinctive names. California has two university systems with institutions sharing names but otherwise quite distinct.

The argument of efficiency through coordination isn’t held everywhere, though. Some places have gone in the other direction. In Oregon, the Oregon University System which for decades oversaw seven separate universities around the state (such as the University of Oregon and Oregon State University) was in 2015 abandoned in favor of closer local control by the institutions. (The trigger for that was the firing of a UO president, which led to a local uprising.) Part of the argument in favor of local control was contention that overriding statewide rules made things more costly – that institutions could run more efficiently and at lower cost if they were more independent. Some of them would tell you that’s been the case since they “declared independence.”

All of Idaho’s universities report to the same board (though for constitutional reasons it’s called the Board of Regents in the case of the University of Idaho), but as Otter pointed out, the board is spread too thin to closely manage each of them. Idaho’s system tips the scale a bit on the side of independence for each.

In his speech, Otter noted that his task force on increasing the percentage of high school students going on to state college “will never achieve the 60-percent goal the way higher education in Idaho is structured today.” So: “…my budget request includes funding for the State Board of Education to hire an executive officer to coordinate the work of all our higher education institutions. The executive officer also will manage a system-wide consolidation of higher education support operations and the board’s continuing policy functions. There’s no doubt these changes will upend the status quo. They will mean less working from isolated silos and more rowing in the same direction.”

He discouraged calling this a chancellor system: “What we’re talking about here is not a chancellor system with schools becoming campuses of a single university. I agree with the task force finding that such a change would be overly disruptive. But there is no doubt about the advantages and the necessity of adopting an executive officer model if we are serious about making and keeping Idaho economically competitive.”

His timing may be good, considering that two of Idaho’s university presidents are retiring this year and a third was reported applying for work elsewhere last year. And if it’s structured right, maybe some efficiencies will result.

This might be as reasonable a time as any to change the system, in one direction or another.
 

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