UMass System Needs Independent Campuses

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. Across the nation are 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 here, 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 10 campuses are parts of a single university and substantially independent. By contrast, states in which a single individual serves 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.

The University of California has repeatedly given greater independence and authority to its campuses. The system began in a form that resembles 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 1950s, Berkeley and UCLA assumed greater independence with the creation of chancellors for the two campuses. When 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 as president, he gave more independence to existing campuses and created new ones to form the group of universities we know today.

Kerr recognized that the independence of the campuses was essential to both realizing excellence and 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.

urthermore, university governance, by its very nature, is highly participatory; you cannot motivate and accomplish change without an immediate relationship with the faculty.

To build collaboration among campuses with strong leaders and distinctive identities, one needs 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 systemwide conferences of students and faculty to build stronger unity among the campuses. It built systemwide councils for chancellors, provosts, vice chancellors, and faculty senate leaders.

What, then, is the systemwide 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 build community among the campuses, lobby for them, and help them achieve excellence.

There are few more important questions than the future of public higher education in Massachusetts. The state lacks a master plan for higher education, and it needs one. Such a plan would 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, former executive vice chancellor of the University of California- Berkeley, is president of Smith College. This article first appeared in the Boston Globe.