Last June, I criticized the Connecticut State University System administrators and the system's board of trustees for an expanding intrusion of the central office into the local autonomy of the four state universities.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy intends to strengthen local autonomy on state university campuses by reorganizing higher education in Connecticut. Unfortunately, his plan's sweeping consolidation of the state universities and community colleges under a single CEO reporting directly to the governor would foil this good intention.
The reorganization — which exempts the University of Connecticut — envisions a Hartford-heavy hierarchy reporting directly to the governor. The plan calls for the board of regents to decide funding for the campuses based on unspecified performance standards, a potential cookie-cutter approach fraught with negative implications for campus autonomy.
In addition, a Hartford central planner rather than the local campus presidents would control hiring for non-faculty positions, including academic support services. Because student needs and programs change constantly, each institution must be nimble enough to shift its limited number of positions — one meaning of institutional autonomy.
The governor's proposed reorganization empowers a top-down bureaucracy that means Hartford decision-makers would feel obligated to issue mandates and require approvals across the system, with the risk of increasingly limiting local autonomy.
Although the state must have a mechanism to ensure accountability, consistency and collective action in higher education, it also must have local institutional autonomy. That's the problem that the governor's reorganization plan attempts to address. Historically the legislature created the CSU system and its board as an answer to that perennial problem, and there are lessons to be drawn from the experience.
From the outset the state universities have existed in a tension with the system's central office. The tension was often uncomfortable for the chancellor and the presidents, but it has also often been creative and productive, contributing to economies, shared programs, broader visions and a steady increase in the academic excellence of the four distinct universities.
Last year, I wrote that the important creativity in that tension was being lost. The chancellor is one of five people (including the four presidents) listed as reporting directly to the board. The chancellor was standing between the presidents and the board, and increasingly came to be understood as the hierarchical "boss" of the presidents, a shift that the controversial firing of the Southern Connecticut State University President Cheryl Norton underscored. A creative tension had become a conflicted one. That was perhaps inevitable, given the way the system is set up.
Instead of a sweeping reorganization to accomplish the governor's aim of accountability, consistency and autonomy, can we modify what we have? Can we avoid imposing a stifling hierarchy and more thoughtfully nourish the dynamic balance between campus autonomy and the synergies of the CSU system?
I have heard suggestions as to how this might be done from capping the size of the system office to putting one of the four presidents on the board in rotation. The latter would be a way to emphasize that the chancellor isn't the boss of the presidents but a co-equal who has a special responsibility to keep the board informed and to spur (though not command) the four universities to work together wherever possible on budget, curriculum, assessment and the like.
The Hartford-heavy reorganization proposed by the governor would have unforeseen results. Can we accomplish his sensible purposes by skillfully revising the organization we have?
John Briggs is a professor in the writing department at Western Connecticut State University and a Connecticut State University System distinguished professor.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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