The Shifting Role of University Systems

In a recent blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Steven Mintz, UT System's Executive Director of the Institute for Transformational Learning, discusses the shifting role of university systems. He cites four areas where the system’s role has become particularly important: In providing shared services, setting systemwide priorities, driving innovation and coordinating online learning.  

He writes: "Most important of all, systems can serve as innovation incubators, assisting campuses in building the data-driven strategic enrollment and student lifecycle management infrastructure needed to support education in the 21st century; in advancing next-generation online learning, which will play a critical role in enhancing access, affordability, student success, and institutional sustainability; and leading the way as institutions gradually develop outcomes-driven, competency-based, career-oriented educational pathways."

Read his post below:

The Shifting Role of University Systems

by Steven Mintz

Must reading for anyone interested in the future of public higher education is Jason E. Lane and Dr. Bruce Johnstone’s  Higher Education Systems 3.0  (SUNY Press, 2013), which examines the shifting role of multi-campus university systems.

Today, 59 multi-campus public  university systems operate in 37 states,  serving roughly three quarters of all students at four-year public colleges and universities.

A relatively recent phenomenon, multi-campus university systems first emerged in the late nineteenth century, but only became commonplace after World War II. From the outset, the primary motivation for system-building was to curb political influence in funding public colleges and universities.

Systems were created to reduce institutional competition for state appropriations and discourage legislators from lobbying in behalf of particular campuses. Other goals were to prevent mission creep, achieve economies of scale, and ensure the viability of academic programs and limit redundancies.

Systems take contrasting forms. A segmentation model, epitomized by California, divides public postsecondary education into discrete tiers based on institutional mission and admissions criteria. A comprehensive model, exemplified by the State University of New York System, includes community colleges as well as state colleges, technical colleges, regional comprehensive universities, and research universities.

Eighteen states have a single, state-wide system; nineteen have multiple systems, distinguished by geography or institutional type. There are also substantial differences in the degree of autonomy granted to component campuses, with some possessing separate governing boards. 

System responsibilities vary widely. Most are responsible for allocating capital and operational funds, auditing campus expenditures, approving academic programs, and overseeing campus compliance with state and federal rules and regulations.  Systems also establish legislative priorities, hire and review campus presidents or chancellors, and establish uniform rules regarding governance, personnel, academic and student issues, and intellectual property. A smaller number conduct collective bargaining and manage grants, benefits, and retirement systems. 

For decades, systems’ primary functions were largely limited to policymaking and oversight. In recent years, however, systems have taken a more aggressive and expansive role in setting tuition and fees, collecting and analyzing data, and coordinating relationships with school districts, community colleges, foundations, and government.    

In four areas, the system’s role has become particularly important: In providing shared services, setting systemwide priorities, driving innovation, and coordinating online learning.

To trim campus costs, systems increasingly leverage scale in procurement and promote uniformity in administrative, financial, and strategic enrollment management processes and software and in IT infrastructure. Systems have also redefined institutional priorities around accessibility, affordability, and student learning outcomes, including time-to-degree.

Many systems have taken the lead in negotiating articulation agreements to ease credit transfer and in advocating for competency-based education. Perhaps the most striking development is the growing role of systems in promoting a coordinated approach to online learning for non-matriculated as well as matriculated students.

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