Future of higher education requires clarity of thought

For five-and-a-half hours last Monday, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland hosted a seminar on higher education -- attended by dozens of presidents of colleges and universities. And while several important issues were discussed, the one of particular interest to us was barely mentioned.
However, we've been assured by the governor's office that Strickland does intend to have discussions with the higher education community about his proposal to make the chancellor a cabinet officer. The meeting Monday was one of several the governor will hold with college and university presidents and other stakeholders, we were told.
That's good, because the change Strickland is proposing in the governance of Ohio's public institutions of higher learning requires serious deliberation. It isn't enough for the Republican leaders in the General Assembly and the new Democratic governor to have a meeting of the minds.
We do not question Strickland's sincerity in wanting higher education in Ohio to be more accountable, affordable, efficient and relevant.
Indeed, the session he hosted Monday was designed to find ways to: make colleges and universities accessible; get more students to graduate more often with better grades; increase the number of research and development projects; and define how higher education can serve Ohio's work force.
But how does having the governor appoint the chancellor -- the position now falls under the authority of the Ohio Board of Regents -- result in those goals being met?
That question gives rise to another: If the chancellor no longer answers to the regents, is there still going to be such a board? If so, will the regents have the statutory independence they now enjoy?
Funding formulas
Although the governor and the Legislature set the higher education budget -- it usually is based on the funding request from the regents -- and have a say on how the money is distributed among the colleges and universities through funding formulas, they have traditionally shied away from micromanaging higher education.
Members of the board of regents are appointed by the governor and more often than not are individuals with strong credentials and good reputations. Governors and legislators have historically respected their judgment.
But, if the board of regents is eliminated, or its role is diminished, then the buffer against the politicization of higher education will be lost. That could well be a slippery slope. Now, regents approve all degree programs and all capital projects.
Our interest in the governor's proposal also stems from the fact that Youngstown State University, by virtue of being an open admissions, urban institution, could be at a disadvantage if the politicians in Columbus were the keepers of higher education.
There were two other important issues that weren't addressed during last Monday's gabfest, tuition caps and the effect a tight state budget will have on education funding.
While some might believe that the changes proposed by Strickland and the GOP leadership are a fait accompli, we would hope the governor listens to as many opinions as possible before he signs legislation changing the way higher education is governed.

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