Changes Will Bring a New Order to OBR

C. Todd Jones

Sometimes fundamental political changes can be identified months or years before they arrive. Like the dust raised by an ancient army of foot soldiers in the distance, everyone can plainly see what is to come, even if the outcome is unknown.

Other times, like earlier this month, change can happen in a few hours. In less than 24 hours on January 10-11, two press releases and a few newspaper articles signaled a nearly certain change in the basic structure of Ohio’s higher education governance. Assuming this change occurs, the only remaining questions concern its extent and long term implications.

Ohio’s current system of higher education coordination was established in 1963 with the creation of the Ohio Board of Regents (OBR). The Board has nine members serving staggered nine-year terms. For the most part, OBR has been populated with relatively distinguished Ohioans with an interest in higher education. OBR responsibilities include the distribution of both the public subsidy to state colleges, and state-funded need-based financial aid to students. The Board also has the authority to authorize independent nonprofit colleges and approve new degree programs at those institutions.

Yet OBR’s most important responsibility is the selection and supervision of the chancellor. The chancellor is a member of the governor’s cabinet--but unlike every other cabinet member, the chancellor is not selected by the governor. (Individual Board members are appointed by the governor, but under the current system, a Taft-selected majority of Regents would hold through Governor Strickland’s fourth year in office.)

The most recent chancellor was Rod Chu--a visionary with two important problems: many legislators resented Chu’s manner and what they saw as his unwillingness to listen. The practical effect was a gradual evaporation of support in the statehouse, first for Chu and then for OBR. By mid-2006, Chu had resigned. OBR immediately started a search for a new chancellor, and by December, six finalists had been selected. Five were outsiders who had spent their careers as bureaucrats with other states’ governing or coordinating boards, and the sixth was an Ohio insider of a similar mold. Interviews were scheduled for Tuesday, January 16, in Columbus.

The interviews never happened. On January 10, Speaker of the House Jon Husted released a four-paragraph statement to the press, citing the need for a new direction in higher education. He planned to provide that direction by giving the governor the authority to hire the chancellor. The Speaker asked that the Board call off final interviews, and said the House would soon introduce legislation to make that change a reality. Ninety minutes later, Governor Strickland issued a short statement to the press in support of Speaker Husted’s idea.  Newspaper articles the next morning reported the support of Senate President Bill Harris. Within a day, OBR cancelled the search. In one day, Ohio higher education policy changed irrevocably.

While legislative action will not likely be complete until at least March, the new chancellor will certainly be a direct appointee before the biennial budget is signed in June. Although the Speaker and governor have been careful to say that they only back a change in the chancellor’s status, political reality points toward more significant changes. Senior legislators harbor a general dissatisfaction with OBR that has grown with their inability to change the tuition-setting practices of public universities, and anecdotal complaints about public colleges’ prolific spending practices have been rampant.

Once the Speaker’s proposal becomes a bill, anything can happen. The bill will likely become a higher education catch-all. Options floated include eliminating the board itself, stripping functions from OBR such as higher education promotion and outreach, and forcing administrative restructuring of public institutions. Most politically charged would be any recommendation to strip the authority of the publicly appointed trustees of Ohio’s public colleges, and centralize that power with the new chancellor. Ohio is currently near the decentralized end of the state-control spectrum--with a coordinating board, but real power resting with individual institutions. While the state could conceivably spin off state institutions, much as Virginia has done with its flagship institution’s graduate schools, most other policy options entail transferring authority to the new chancellor.

At a meeting with nearly 80 of the state’s university presidents on Monday, Governor Strickland suggested that Ohio’s higher education sector needed to be a system focusing on access and student success, research and innovation, and workforce development. The rhetoric is broad enough to fit any number of potential visions for higher education in this state, and only the coming weeks will reveal his agenda. None of his comments, however, addressed the deep structural changes implicit in, and possible with, the shift of the chancellorship.

Some have and will continue to complain about the “politicization” of the chancellorship, but in reality, the chancellorship and OBR were politicized long ago. The Speaker’s proposal would simply change the nature of that politicization.

In hindsight, the dust cloud from the approaching army was quite clear. Speaker Husted and other legislators have been able to impact higher education policy only at the margins. Despite making their wishes public in very clear terms, OBR and chancellor resisted the legislature’s efforts to change the status quo. Whether the Board even had the power to make some of the desired changes in public institutions is, in a sense, immaterial. In the next few months, a new order will come to the Ohio Board of Regents in substance, if not in form.

by C. Todd Jones
President and General Counsel
Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio (AICUO)