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Published: Tuesday, 8/16/2011

Corporate higher ed

The Kasich administration is offering Ohio's 14 public universities a grand bargain: Take less state aid; get less state regulation and oversight. The schools -- and the state's taxpayers -- ought to be skeptical of that exchange.

The proposal, outlined by Ohio Chancellor James Petro, aims to convert the state's public institutions of higher education into "enterprise" universities. It would require legislative approval.

The theory behind the plan is similar to the rationale for charter schools: Liberate state universities from the supposedly stifling bureaucratic mandates that govern traditional institutions. Once they meet prescribed performance standards, let their capacity for entrepreneurship flower. Then stand back and watch them make more money, create more jobs, graduate more students, and cut costs.

In return for this refreshing burst of freedom and quasi-privatization, the schools would give up as much as 20 percent of their annual per-pupil state aid. That money would go into a state fund for merit-based university scholarships.

Once you get past the theory and into the details, some troubling questions arise. Which regulations does the administration find so burdensome, obsolete, and unnecessary?

One set now requires public universities to do their business in public. The plan would allow the schools' governing boards to meet privately to discuss such things as internal audits and so-called trade secrets.

They no longer would have to submit real-estate purchases and sales and other transactions for approval by the chancellor and the General Assembly's Controlling Board. What would taxpayers lose in transparency and accountability among the schools in return for purported gains in efficiency and autonomy?

The proposal would maintain the ceiling in the new state budget on annual tuition increases -- even though the governor and lawmakers, who have just slashed state aid to public higher education, don't deserve to be able to deny the schools flexibility in raising revenue.

But the plan would allow universities to charge higher tuition for some, presumably more-popular, academic programs. It would enable schools to confer a degree after three years of study. Students and parents who pay tuition bills need to know a lot more about how such big changes would work, and to have the opportunity to respond.

The liberal advocacy group Innovation Ohio asks whether the deregulation the proposal seeks might weaken the state's commitment to such things as maintaining affirmative action in public university hiring, giving Ohio companies preference in university purchasing, or even preserving a good-quality, accessible, affordable program of higher education. That question deserves an answer too.

There also is the habitual suspicion in this part of the state that such initiatives are designed to benefit Ohio State at the expense of all other universities. The plan's authors must show that is not its intent, and would not be its effect.

The administration makes a defensible case that state rules governing such things as universities' construction projects, contract bidding procedures, self-insurance and borrowing practices, legal settlements, enrollment ceilings, and formal cooperation with each other can be eliminated or at least relaxed.

Balanced against that is the terrible job the state has done of supervising many tax-funded charter schools. What assurance do taxpayers have that reduced state oversight of universities will be any more effective?

If the administration can show that some higher-education mandates are truly counterproductive, though, why use them as bargaining chips to get universities to acquiesce in further big cuts in their state aid?

Why not just get rid of them, without demanding such radical changes to a system of public higher education that has served Ohio well for so long?



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