Top public universities in US push for ‘autonomy’ from states

Many are worried that as public universities gain freedom, they will end up sidelining broader goals such as access and affordability

The chancellor of Oregon’s higher-education system currently oversees all seven of the state’s public colleges and universities. But as of July next year, she’ll be chancellor of four.

The schools aren’t closing. Rather, Oregon’s three largest state schools are in the process of breaking away from the rest of the public system.

The move, long pushed by some university leaders in the system, will give the University of Oregon, Portland State University and Oregon State University more freedom to hire and fire presidents, issue revenue bonds, and raise tuition.

Across the country, a small but growing number of public universities are making similar pushes, looking to cut deals with state lawmakers that scale back direct oversight, often in return for less funding or for meeting certain performance targets. Over the past few years, schools in Texas, Virginia and Florida have all gotten more flexibility to raise tuition. Other plans have recently been broached, though with less success, in Wisconsin, California and Louisiana.

The proposals vary in scope, but their proponents generally argue that more autonomy allows public universities to operate with less red tape and with greater freedom to raise revenue as state funding has fallen.

But many within higher education point to the potential downsides. They worry that these universities -- often the better-known and wealthier public universities -- could end up sidelining broader state goals such as access and affordability in pursuit of their own agendas, such as moving up in college rankings.

“My fear is that if public flagships become so focused on revenue and prestige, and so focused on autonomy, they will minimize their commitment to the public agenda,” said Richard Novak, who was previously director of public-sector programs at the Association of Governing Boards. “They should be leading the public agenda. If they privatize too much, they’re not going to be doing it for much longer.”

Others have similar concerns.

“I think there’s a potential for confusion, unhealthy competition and misuse of resources,” said Robert O’Neil, who headed the statewide University of Wisconsin system and was also president of the University of Virginia. In O’Neil’s experience, centralized oversight helps keep in check ambitions that might lead colleges to pursue wasteful projects or duplicative programs.

There’s relatively little research on the overall benefits or drawbacks of schools gaining autonomy, but it does appear that such universities often end up resembling private colleges, moving toward a “high tuition, high aid” model in which schools hike sticker prices significantly while offering big discounts to students schools are trying to attract. (As ProPublica has detailed, state schools have been giving a growing portion of grants to wealthier students and a shrinking portion to the neediest.)

State and university officials pushing for more autonomy often balk at the term “privatization,” noting that the universities aren’t severing all ties with the state.

As one planning group at the University of Virginia wrote last month, “Autonomous is not the opposite of public.”

The University of Virginia, along with two other state universities, struck deals in 2005 that won it significant autonomy from the Commonwealth. Those agreements mandated that the schools still meet various benchmarks -- but they also gave the universities wiggle room.

Three years after the deal, a state audit report concluded that while the schools were meeting their “access” goals, the number of low-income students at each of the universities -- as measured by federal Pell grants -- was actually decreasing. (A university spokesman said enrollment of low-income students has gone up since then.)

Even some supporters of moving toward privatization have begun to have second thoughts.

James Garland, former president of Miami University, a public university in Ohio, was once a strong proponent of what he calls “semi-privatization” of American public universities, having headed a university that he describes as “public in name only.” In 2009, he wrote a book arguing that public universities should be autonomous and deregulated by their states.

In the years since, Garland said, his views on the autonomy question have “mellowed.” Though he still believes autonomy can make sense for some schools, he’s also concerned about the potential pitfalls.

“Some of these flagships would like to make decisions that benefit their own financial future and give them the ability to build posh dining halls or giant stadiums or create new nanotechnology centers,” Garland said, “when what really may be more needed than that is simply providing a high-quality rigorous college education for legions of students in the state who can’t afford that now and have no place to go and get it.”

“It’s not an accident that you see this happening among big, well-funded publics,” Garland added.

At the University of Virginia, internal discussion of further steps toward privatization has continued. As the Washington Post recently reported, a draft report from a university planning committee recommended “another major restructuring of the relationship between the University and the Commonwealth.” The document notes that the change “would not mean complete privatization.”

University of Virginia spokesman McGregor McCance said the draft report was part of early discussions about possible models for public higher education, and that there are no plans for the university to ask for additional autonomy.

Colleges and universities that do seek to move in this direction need to have candid conversations about their goals, said Garland: “As more and more schools argue successfully for some kind of autonomy from their states, there has to be a real understanding about what the mission of those schools is going to be in the future and there has to be some way of evaluating their conformity to that mission.”

In Oregon, they’re still feeling their way through. All of the state’s public colleges will still be overseen in some way by a coordinating commission. That includes the three largest schools, which, even with their new freedoms, will still need the commission to approve certain items, such as tuition hikes beyond 5 percent. The details of how that system of checks and balances will work -- and how the change will affect the smaller universities still part of the system -- remain to be seen.

“It’s such a turbulent time for higher education, there’s a lot to be said for helping to position institutions to be much more nimble when it comes to shaping the business and delivery of higher education,” said Ben Cannon, the governor of Oregon’s education policy advisor, who was recently appointed head of the commission.

As to whether the new autonomy will actually help schools become more nimble, Cannon acknowledged, “It’s kind of unproven.”

Asked what they will call the new structure and whether the “Oregon University System” will nominally continue to refer to all seven universities, Cannon said that was still being decided.

“That’s a complicated question. The labels are still up for grabs,” Cannon said. “The structure really isn’t. That’s done.”



Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan kidnapped by armed group

Ali Zeidan was taken to an unknown destination for unknown reasons by a group of men believed to be former rebels

An armed group on Thursday kidnapped Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan at dawn  and took him to an unknown location.


In a brief statement on its website, the Libyan government said, "The head of the transitional government, Ali Zeidan was taken to an unknown destination for unknown reasons by a group of men believed to be former rebels".


Sensex, Nifty on an uptrend: Wednesday closing report

Current upmove may take the Nifty to the level of 6,085, while the close below 5,990 may put the upmove on pause

On a higher volume of 64.90 crore shares on the National Stock Exchange (NSE) the Nifty was pulled up into the positive zone for the second consecutive session. The market opened weak but immediately went on an uptrend. The indices entered went into the green after 11 and remained there throughout the session, rising steadily. The benchmark closed near the day’s high.


The Sensex and Nifty opened lower at 19,918 and 5,893 respectively. After hitting a low of 19,827 and 5,877 the indices moved gradually up to hit a high of 20,278 and 6,016. Sensex closed at 20,249 (up 266 points or 1.33%) while the Nifty closed at 60,07 (up 79 points or 1.33%).


Except for MNC (down 0.09%) all the other indices on the NSE ended in the green. The top five gainers were Realty (4.62%); Bank Nifty (1.91%); Pharma (1.91%); Finance (1.76%) and Services (1.58%).


Of the 50 stocks on the Nifty, 40 ended in the green. The top five gainers were D L F (5.98%); Sun Pharma (5.73%); Jaiprakash Associates (4.35%); Kotak Mahindra Bank (4.02%) and I D F C (3.52%). While the losers were Wipro (1.54%); M&M (1.41%); Sesa Sterlite (1.02%); Cairn (0.68%) and BPCL (0.60%).


Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan on Tuesday said that the current account deficit (CAD) can be contained at $70 billion this fiscal. He also that he is working to turn investor sentiment positive for India to help boost GDP growth rate. Positive views by the governor on the Indian economy played on the market sentiments. He said the economy will only start getting better from now, reflecting a growing view that the economy has bottomed out. Rajan cited that rising exports, strong agricultural production and revival of stalled projects will aid in the recovery, and the law makers in the US would be able to arrive at a fiscal deal.


The provisional data released by the government today, 9 September 2013, showed that India's trade deficit narrowed sharply to $6.7 billion in September 2013 from $10.9 billion in August 2013. The September trade deficit is the lowest since March 2011. Merchandise exports rose by 11.15% year-on-year in September to $27.68 billion. Imports fell 18.1% year-on-year to $34.44 billion. Gold and silver imports fell by over 80% to $0.8 billion in September. Trade Secretary S R Rao said that government curbs on imports of non-essential items have been effective, adding that jewellery exports from India are likely to revive going ahead.


The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast economic growth for India to dip to 4.25% in the year to 31 March 2014 saying the economy would continue to underperform because of regulatory, infrastructural, and financing issues.


India will give non-banking financial companies (NBFCs) priority when awarding new commercial banking licenses as they already own an existing network of financial services in the country, central bank deputy governor KC Chakrabarty said on Wednesday.


US indices closed in the red on Tuesday. News making round that US President Barack Obama will today nominate Federal Reserve vice chair Janet Yellen to be the next head of the US central bank. Seen as a monetary policy dove, Yellen is considered more likely to maintain the Fed's current accommodative stance. Fed's bond-buying program has been a source of liquidity for most Asian and emerging markets this year.


The IMF cut its global growth forecast to 2.9% for 2013 from its July estimate of 3.1%. IMF sees a modest pickup next year to 3.6%. The cut in its forecasts for global growth yesterday it said US government default could “seriously damage” the world economy.


Except for KLSE Composite (down 0.47%), NZSE 50 (down 0.59%) and Taiwan Weighted (down 0.37%) all the other Asian indices closed in the green. Nikkei 225 was the top gainer, up 1.03%. South Korea's markets were closed today for a holiday.


European indices were trading in the red. US Futures were trading in the green.


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