Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Time for Radical Change at Penn State Redux

Here is something else to consider in the debate over restructuring of higher education in the Commonwealth.
Article III. Section 30.No appropriation shall be made to any charitable or educational institution not under the absolute control of the Commonwealth, other than normal schools established by law for the professional training of teachers for the public schools of the State, except by a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each House.
The normal schools referred to are the predecessors of the state-owned universities.

A two-thirds majority vote on appropriation bills for the state-related universities certainly makes it more difficult to get enough votes to increase appropriations in any significant way for these institutions. Hence any restructuring of higher education in the Commonwealth should result in a change of the number of votes required to a simple majority.

As I wrote yesterday, placing the state-related schools within the executive branch would allow their appropriations to be placed in the general appropriations bill. However, this clause would require that the governor have absolute control over these institutions in order for a simple majority to be enough to pass their appropriations.

I'm not sure how one could restructure the governance of these schools to satisfy the requirement of Article III. Section 30. without sacrificing the autonomy which a university must have. Would it be possible to bring the state-related schools under the State System of Higher Education and thereby have them classified as "normal schools", while maintaining the schools research university status? Would it be necessary to amend the Constitution in order to achieve the change?

Now I'm not the first to contemplate that Penn State might have to alter its arrangement with the Commonwealth because of low appropriation. Graham raised the possibility a few years ago.

Other indications of public higher education’s slow slide toward privatization include the heavier emphasis on fund raising, the increased loan burden on our students, and the growing trend toward partnerships with the private sector. We also have pushed for more commercialization of our research, asked faculty to generate more resources, and moved toward more practical and professional programs to meet public demand.

Some institutions are of the opinion that if the state is unwilling or unable to pay the bills, a move toward privatization would make sense. In exchange for less state funding, the institution could gain more autonomy. However, state appropriations are still the largest single source of funding for current operating expenses at many public universities, making a move to full privatization a risky scenario.

In this passage, Graham was talking in general terms and not specifically about Penn State, but elsewhere he has talked specifically about privatizing Penn State. Privatization is not a solution to the problem of low appropriations. It's more a petulant response to the frustration of declining appropriation, as measured as a percent of the general budget, during his tenure as President. Or even more likely it is like a child hinting he'll run away from home if his parents don't increase his allowance.

However, as we see in this and yesterday's post, Penn State and the other state-related universities are only loosely tied to the Commonwealth. Hence there is ample room to move in the opposite direction toward closer ties with the state and, unlike privatization, this is a move that realistically has a chance of solving the problem of low appropriations.

Why hasn't Graham even raised the possibility of closer ties to the Commonwealth? He might say that the problem with closer ties is a loss of autonomy which might infringe academic freedom. Such a response would be a red herring. A closer tie to the state should be able to be structured to assure academic freedom and shared governance. After all, other states have flourishing public university systems which are tied much more closely to their respective states than is Penn State. The more likely reason is that the corporately controlled board of trustee does not want to relinquish their control of the University.

Let's have an honest debate about the restructuring of higher education in the Commonwealth.

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