Flamekeeping. With a blowtorch.

Friday, October 27th, 2017

(This is the second of a two-part series. Last week, I reflected on the board's and our universities' extraordinary transformation and progress over the past year.)

Americans' faith in institutions seems at an all-time low, even at our most venerated institutions like public universities. Certainly, some of that low confidence is brought on by the sector itself, with issues like tuition, debt and sports money raising questions and rocking trust. State disinvestment and the continuous bashing of the public sector have taken their toll, too.

With frustration and blame in vogue, there is little recognition to make public institutions better, especially when those reforms come from the inside.

In "The Road to Character," David Brooks observes: "We like start-ups, disruptors, and rebels. There's less prestige accorded to those who tend to the perpetual reform and repair of institutions."

Across our nation, our public universities serve the majority of college-going Americans. As the economy demands greater numbers of more highly educated individuals, preserving our public universities is one of the most important matters facing us, our state and our country.

That doesn't mean preserving the status quo. Quite the contrary. It means taking a hard look at the conditions and causes for the public's discontent with American higher education, then working to improve them.

As Brooks explains, people with an institutional mindset have a different mentality, "which begins with a different historical consciousness" in which "the primary reality is society ... a collection of institutions that have existed over time and transcend generations ... It is accepting the gifts of the dead, taking on the responsibility of preserving and improving an institution and then transmitting that institution, better, on to the next generation. ... It is an inheritance to be passed on and a debt to be repaid."

The institutional reform mindset has been the core of our work over the past several years, and our focus is delivering results. A recent blog post, A Transformational Year, details our meaningful progress in increasing outcomes for students and our state.

It deserves recognition, yes, but this is no time for self-congratulations. We have much more work to do.

Universities, both conceptually and operationally, have changed dramatically since they were first established. Public expectations have changed, too, and when combined with market forces, call for an increased focus on outcomes and cost effectiveness.

As the people's board, we are evolving our governance to match those expectations. In the coming year, we will extend our reform work as follows:

  • Launch a year-long review of quality to determine what defines quality at our universities. Beyond accreditation and the latest rankings in U.S. News & World Report, how do we define quality? What quality assurance processes do we rely on and how do we account for the knowledge and skills that students must have upon graduation?
  • Pursue additional reforms to increase access and affordability, including the development of offerings within and outside of the university system to meet the needs of students and drive down costs associated with education delivery.
  • Continue our tuition and fee reform efforts by conducting extensive system-wide audits of the university fee-setting process, student success and information technology security with the state auditor general and examine opportunities to change our policy and practice.
  • Develop extensive methodologies to assess the costs of undergraduate education and report our findings to the Legislature.
  • Update policies on university property development and private-sector business developed on university property to ensure maximum impact to our institutions, the community and the public.
  • Work with federal and national leaders on efforts to reward innovation and outcomes, not merely compliance, particularly as the federal government looks to devolve more higher education responsibilities to states.

Make no mistake - our institutions are full of outstanding disruptors and innovators, stretching the bounds of knowledge and discovery whose innumerable contributions spawn life-saving inventions and start-up companies with global impact. But at the same time, we are proud of and indebted to the institutionalists, the flamekeepers who ensure our public universities remain among America's greatest institutions.