The following op-ed appeared June 21, 2007, in The Boston Globe.
The debate about governance at the University of Massachusetts, motivated by President Jack M. Wilson’s vision for “one university,” has paid scant attention to the history of state university systems. In states across the nation, we have a laboratory of experiments that enable us to draw conclusions about the elements necessary to achieve the highest level of educational excellence. Massachusetts has a less mature state university system than some other states. Undoubtedly because of the large number of outstanding private colleges and universities located within it, Massachusetts created a state university system relatively recently -- in 1991, several decades after such systems were created in places like California, New York, Texas and Illinois.
The experience of those states demonstrates that systems need to give considerable independence to individual campuses to achieve the best results. The University of California is a case in point.
Arguably the best state system of higher education in the country, its ten campuses are at once parts of a single university and substantially independent. By contrast, states in which a single individual serves at once as chancellor of the flagship campus and president of the system, like Michigan, tend to have single university systems in which the other campuses are clearly subordinate branches.
Throughout its history, the University of California has repeatedly given greater independence and authority to its campuses. The system began in a form that resembles President Wilson’s vision; the entire university was governed from Berkeley--its medical campus in San Francisco, its agricultural experiment stations in Davis and Riverside, and the outpost, the “Southern Division of the University of California,” later known as UCLA. In the early 1950’s, Berkeley and UCLA assumed greater independence with the creation of chancellors for the two campuses. When the Berkeley Chancellor, Clark Kerr, became President of the University in 1958, he worked to realize a vision of nine independent campuses, each distinctive and excellent. In the eight years in which he served president, he gave more independence to existing campuses and created new ones--in San Diego, Irvine, and Santa Cruz--to form the extraordinary group of universities we know today.
Kerr recognized that the independence of the campuses was essential both to realizing excellence and to shaping distinctive identity. Change in large organizations is inherently difficult; anything that reduces bureaucracy and levels of governance makes them more nimble in responding to problems and opportunities. Furthermore, university governance, of its very nature, is highly participatory; you cannot motivate and accomplish change without an immediate relationship to the faculty. Effective leaders need to know their communities and the resources and opportunities they present, and their communities must know them and trust them to act on their behalf.
To build collaboration among campuses with strong leaders and distinctive identities, you need to institutionalize regular communication at every organizational level. At the same time that the University of California gave authority to the chancellors, it created annual system-wide conferences of students and of faculty to build stronger unity among the campuses. It built system-wide councils for chancellors, provosts, vice chancellors, and faculty senate leaders. You cannot decree unity; you need to build it, among those immediately responsible for decision making on the campuses. It is a human as much as a policy task.
What, then, is the system-wide role? The system, in extensive consultation with the campuses, should develop policies for the entire university in matters such as intellectual property, tenure and promotion, construction financing, compensation and benefits. It should take the lead in governmental relations, both at the state and federal levels. It should build community among the campuses, lobby for them and help them achieve the excellence to which they aspire.
There are few more important questions than the future of public higher education in the state of Massachusetts. Massachusetts lacks a master plan for higher education, and it needs one. Such a plan will better ensure educational opportunity for its students. Its development must be a highly public process, conducted by a body with broadly representative and respected membership. Only in such a public conversation can we arrive at wise decisions and policies with the legitimacy to guide higher education for decades to come.
Carol T. Christ is president of Smith College and former executive vice chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.