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  • Restructuring State Higher Education Governance Patterns
  • Laurence R. Marcus (bio)


For the better part of half a century, states have sought to provide for a rational system of higher education through the mechanism of state-level and institutional boards, each uniquely empowered to be responsive to the issues and concerns in their state at the time that the governance pattern was adopted. However, as issues and concerns have changed, so has the formal relationship between the state-level entity and the colleges and universities. There have been shifts between governing and coordinating structures and between centralization and decentralization in both structural forms. State-level and institutional boards have been created, combined, replaced, and dissolved, as states have sought to improve governance. As noted by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1976), the relationship between states and their higher education institutions has been dynamic and complex. [End Page 399]

This article seeks to shed light on whether there is any combination of factors that may predict the enactment of proposals for the restructuring of their relationships. More specifically, it investigates a set of internal factors to discern the extent to which they drive change in governance patterns. Further, I focus on the proposals for the most extensive governance restructuring to determine the extent to which regional effects may promote the enactment of similarly directed initiatives among nearby states. The article begins with a historical overview of the changing relationship between states and their institutions of higher learning. The findings are based on the results of a study regarding governance reform activity initiated in the five-year period from 1989 to 1994.

Historical Overview

To accommodate the demand for higher education created by the G.I. Bill and the post-World War II baby boom, states dramatically expanded their systems of public higher education. State-level higher education boards and agencies proliferated to manage this growth, driven by the need to make the most efficient use of resources and to meet the public demand for access to quality programs of study. By 1972, 47 states had higher education boards, also called commissions or councils. Some of these boards had statutory responsibility to govern the entire public higher education sector, while others received governing authority over four-year publics only. Some states established boards with varying degrees of authority to coordinate the activity of institutional governing boards, handling such matters as institutional licensure, statewide planning, and approval of new degree programs.

Glenny (1959), Berdahl (1971), and Millett (1984) have chronicled the rationale for their establishment, role, and effect on higher education. There was a widespread perception that existing structures (state education departments primarily interested in K-12 education or legislatures making higher education policies based either on institutional hegemony or in response to local power bases) failed to provide a rational state system. While historical factors in each of the states determined whether governing or coordinating boards were established, Hearn and Griswold (1994) have argued that the movement toward formal state-level governance arrangements was inevitable. However, as the times and the politics in a state change, so also does the conception of what constitutes the best approach to providing a rational state system of higher education. McGuinness (1994) has charted the modifications in state-level governance patterns.

During the 1970s, 12 states significantly altered their higher education structures. Increased centralization was the predominant pattern, with the most dramatic occurring in North Carolina and Wisconsin, where coordinating bodies were replaced with unitary statewide governing boards for [End Page 400] their four-year public institutions. Seven other states accorded additional authority to their coordinating boards.

In response to national concerns about quality and accountability, the pace of change increased in the second half of the 1980s; 27 states conducted major studies of the effectiveness of their higher education systems, and 14 implemented reforms, 12 in the direction of increased centralization. Existing but weak coordinating boards in Colorado, Texas, and Washington and a planning commission in Nebraska were replaced by more powerful coordinating boards. Similarly, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Oregon strengthened their already strong coordinating boards. Alaska, California, Colorado, and Connecticut also strengthened coordination for their community colleges. The Dakotas increased the...

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