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Testimony before the Senate
Dr. Jeanne M. Oswald, Executive
New Jersey Commission on
September 26, 2005
Good afternoon Chairwoman Turner and members of the Committee, and
thank you for providing the opportunity to talk with you today about
New Jersey’s governance structure for higher education.
I am speaking on behalf
of the Commission on Higher Education. Chairman
Mertz had planned to be here to testify as well, but he is not able
to make it, and he sends his regrets. He has indicated he supports
the comments I will make today, which are consistent with the Commission’s
discussion of this issue at a retreat last year and also reflective
of findings in the 1999 statutorily required assessment of the structure.
This is an appropriate time to reflect on the changes of the 1994
Restructuring Act after 11 years, and it is always a good time to
consider how to improve.
There are varying higher education structures across the nation,
but there is no perfect model; all have strengths and weaknesses,
and all can “work.”
But the key is always going to be the commitment, integrity, and
leadership of the individuals responsible for making the structure
New Jersey’s structure
is what I think of as “coordinated autonomy.” That
may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s not. Autonomy means independence,
and coordination means working together harmoniously on behalf of
a common effort. The two are not mutually exclusive.
New Jersey’s governance
structure provides a great deal of independence or autonomy to
the institutions, but they are not completely autonomous. They
operate within a system and state laws, they are supported at varying
levels by public dollars, and they have a public purpose and responsibility.
Some level of coordination
is essential to balance the institutional missions, visions, and
ambitions with the state’s interests and needs. And
the current system recognizes that and provides for it.
The current structure
can work, and it has worked well in many respects; but, of course,
as with any structure – there’s room for improvement.
The Chairwoman has asked
that we consider strengths and weaknesses of the current structure
so that we might consider improvements to
ensure the most effective and efficient higher education system for
the state and its people.
In response, I will mention several very positive aspects of the
structure, and I will also comment on weaknesses and suggest how
they might be addressed.
The structure’s main strengths are based on five provisions of the
1. The Act eliminated
excessive regulatory oversight and provided greater institutional
autonomy and increased institutional creativity
to implement diverse missions within a coordinated system.
2. It provided institutional
flexibility in establishment of new programs and enhanced
responsiveness of institutions to student,
business community, and state needs.
3. It increased the
level of collaboration among the institutions.
4. It increased involvement
and responsibility of trustee boards at public institutions.
5. The Act instituted
a regularly updated long-range plan for higher education and coordinated
efforts to achieve state goals.
and initiatives have occurred under the current structure, despite
fiscal constraints. Some examples include increased
enrollments, increased student financial aid, a statewide higher
education data and video network, periodic investment in capital
infrastructure, targeted grant programs to meet research and programmatic
needs, an electronic transfer information system, and $32 million
in federal grants to support college readiness for disadvantaged
I will describe what
I believe are the three primary weaknesses of the existing governance
structure. But to a large degree, these
weaknesses are more a function of how the structure is operated than
the structure itself.
1. There is no clear,
central voice for higher education on behalf of state needs
and public policy.
Higher education is a
critical aspect of the state’s infrastructure and economic prosperity,
but it does not have a central voice with
a consistent place at the state budget development or policy tables
within the Administration, while every other major area of state
government has that central voice.
The Governor (and his
senior staff) and the Legislature would benefit from turning
to a state-level higher education point person for advice
and assistance as needed, as they do for every area. And it should
be clear that this person represents the public policy voice for
higher education at the state level, avoiding the current situation
where all of the sectors, and sometimes all of the presidents,
feel they should be at the table, and as a result, most often
no one is.
A central state-level
presence and voice could be achieved by reestablishing a
cabinet-level position. Or it could be achieved by simply bringing
the state higher education agency leader to the table – whether that
be an executive director or some other title – to establish that
ongoing communication and relationship to keep higher education at
the state policy table.
At the same time, it
is critical for the Administration and Legislature to keep
communications open with institutional presidents. The very
able and talented presidents of the colleges and universities
provide valuable perspectives and advice – and they can best
speak for the
Optimally, the structure will benefit from the strong, entrepreneurial
and ambitious voice of the institutional presidents – balanced
by a strong voice on behalf of the state and public policy.
The other essential element, of course, is the ear of policy makers;
there has been no forum for regular conversations like this one,
which leads to the second weakness.
2. The state lacks
clear policy for higher education to guide the “coordinated
autonomy” and work toward achieving state goals.
While the Commission
and the Presidents’ Council each carry out their statutory
responsibilities, there has not been a forum for
public policy and decision making. State policy has long been absent
in critical areas. The long-range plan for higher education, A
Blueprint for Excellence, recognizes this and has initiated a
process for the development of sound public policy for the future.
Two task forces are underway
to develop policy recommendations for consideration. Key leaders
from state government, higher education, and the private sector
have come together to:
recommend a long-term state plan to support capital needs at
colleges and universities, and
recommend a methodology/policy
for operating support of the public research universities and
the state colleges and universities to
fill the void that has existed since the mid 1980s.
These recommendations will be presented to the Commission on Higher
Education, and the Commission will seek input from stakeholders before
submitting formal policy recommendations to the Administration and
Legislature for consideration.
The ultimate desired
outcome is the development of state policy in these and
other critical areas to guide institutional and state
planning and decision-making.
A state policy framework is an essential component of coordinated
autonomy; it should provide general guidance for the Commission as
it carries out its responsibilities for licensure and academic program
decisions, funding and policy recommendations, program implementation,
and general coordination on behalf of the state.
The state policy framework
should also provide general guidance for institutional
decisions regarding academic programs, enrollment
growth, tuition and fees, and other areas. For example,
general, long-term funding and tuition policy to guide institutional
could avoid periodic de facto limitations that inhibit effective
planning and operations.
And there is one final weakness that is worthy of mention.
3. The system would
benefit from a better articulated framework for accountability.
expectations of accountability for higher education outcomes
have increased over the past decade, as have expectations for
accountability, which have spilled over to the nonprofit sector
from the new federal requirements placed on the corporate world.
framework for accountability in the governance structure is not
as clear as it should be, but we are making strides in that direction
with the new long-range plan and its annual progress updates,
which track improvements over time and include peer comparisons
a national context in which to view outcomes. The draft update
of the plan will be released today, and I will provide copies
through staff to the committee members.
Commission does not have responsibility for fiscal accountability
of the institutions, and rightfully so. Fiscal accountability
belongs at the institutional level, and the trustees of the institutions
must be equipped with the skills and knowledge to appropriately
exercise that accountability. While individual sectors have
various trustee development programs, it may be beneficial to
or biennial trustee conferences at the state level to further
prepare trustees in this critical area.
Ideally, a clearly articulated accountability framework will
meet public expectations for higher education accountability.
In summary, New Jersey
has a higher education governance structure that can work. But this structure, like most, is dependent upon
the goodwill of key stakeholders who must make it work effectively. Our
structure is particularly dependent on that goodwill to promote collaboration,
communication, and coordination. In fact, communication and collaboration
among key stakeholders and entities is uneven at times, making the
But the greatest vulnerabilities
lie in the lack of a central state voice for higher education,
the lack of public policy, and the lack
of an articulated accountability framework. We are already moving
to address these shortcomings, and we look forward to working with
you and other state policymakers to ensure that the governance structure
provides the most effective and efficient higher education system
for the state and its citizens.