September 12, 2010/Ann Arbor.com
For more than a century, Michigan has had an entrepreneurial model of management for its public universities.
University autonomy, limiting intrusion of politicians and bureaucrats into the operation of our 15 public universities, was written into the state's 1963 Constitution. It has allowed community driven university boards to meet the needs of Michigan's students and communities, particularly businesses, in a nimble fashion. It's worked well - around the nation, no state boasts such a diverse group of high quality public universities.
Now some are suggesting that we replace that entrepreneurial, market driven local control with a bureaucratic Lansing-centric governing system for Michigan's universities. This would eliminate the local accountability and reduce opportunities for collaboration with local businesses and community leaders, instead subjecting students to the whims of politicians and bureaucrats, and forcing local leaders to beg Lansing for the programs they need.
Support for a centrally controlled "system" comes, ostensibly, because Michigan universities - reacting to a 16 percent cut in state support since fiscal year 2002-03 (at a time when inflation has increased 13 percent) - have raised tuition to maintain quality and address growing enrollment. Even with those tuition increases, which no university board enjoys approving, student demand is at record levels, an indication that the market for higher education is still robust.
State support for higher education in Michigan has slipped to 10th lowest per student in the nation. State scholarship aid has been virtually eliminated by the Legislature, forcing on universities the responsibility of keeping college affordable to low income students.
Michigan's universities have reacted to the financial challenges by making major changes to their operations - each in its own way, as is appropriate. Some have raised staff contributions to health care coverage to 30 percent of premiums. Others have eliminated health care for retirees. Some have eliminated programs - and others have added programs where demand is high, to gain additional students.
Michigan's universities are collaborating as never before. They have joined together to purchase energy, share insurance expenses, develop compatible high speed computer networking operations, review program offerings, and a myriad of other cost-saving measures that operate under the radar of Lansing politicians and special interest groups.
You can read our report on this matter at www.pcsum.org/Portals/0/docs/2009%20Cooperation%20Report.pdf.
Entrepreneurial universities under autonomous leadership have brought about great changes for Michigan that would likely have been squelched by risk-adverse bureaucrats, including:
• Grand Valley State University's downtown Grand Rapids campus, which has transformed that city's downtown.
• The University of Michigan's purchase of Pfizer's abandoned campus, creating new lab space for students, professors and fledgling businesses.
• Oakland University's delivery of services into Macomb County, meeting that community's educational needs.
• Eastern Michigan University's 0-0-0 campaign, calling for no increases in student costs this year.
• Michigan Technological University's new Great Lakes Research Center, for interdisciplinary research and education related to our state's most important natural resource.
• Michigan State University's medical school expansion into Grand Rapids, helping meet the needs of that community's "Pill Hill" facilities.
• University of Michigan-Flint's development of dorms in downtown Flint, helping bring new life to that city.
And many more.
Michigan cannot afford universities that look like our highway system, the epitome of a centrally controlled, bureaucratically managed and politically under-financed operation.
Autonomy has worked to make our universities among the best in the world. The entrepreneurship, competition and accountability delivered by autonomy is the right management structure for the future, too.
Michael A. Boulus is the executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.