Politics As Usual?

February 24, 2011 | Blog


There is much buzz here at UW-Madison about the proposed New Badger Partnership. You can read all the details about what the Chancellor has proposed here, and you can read about some of the concerns expressed here.

In the interest of a rich discussion of this important policy proposal, I want to draw your attention to some relevant research on the topic. I’ll start off with a recent paper by Michael McLendon, professor at Vanderbilt University, and his colleagues Russ Deaton and Jim Hearn.

In a 2007 article McLendon discusses trends in higher education governance reforms over the last several decades, and in particular the rationales posed for these reforms. The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some highlights relevant to the campus debate:

Between 1985-2002 states considered more than 100 different ways to modify governance of higher education systems. “Policy rationales asserted in justification of these changes often pointed to the desire for improved accountability, operating efficiency, cost savings, competitiveness, coordination, and innovativeness….Paralleling roughly the emergence globally of a public sector reform movement christened the “new public management” (Brudney & Wright, 2002, p. 354), some American states experimented with changes to their governance systems for higher education that focused on efficiency rather than equity, choice rather than standardization, decentralized rather than centralized decision-making, performance rather than process, and outcome rather than input measures.”

Sound familiar?

Why so much reform? As McLendon and his colleagues note, it is most common to depict “reforms as a rational response by state leaders to policy problems for which the redesign of higher education systems might serve as a suitable solution.” But, McLendon posits, building on an argument advanced earlier by Aims McGuiness, an entirely different explanation is possible: political instability. Turnover in who’s in charge- and the threat of turnover– may in and of itself lead to these reforms– even though they are posed as rational and necessary, in fact the reforms themselves may be political animals.

And this is, in fact, what McLendon finds. “Fluctuations on the political landscape of states [are] the primary drivers of legislation to reform governance arrangements for higher education.”

In particular:

(1) “States are more likely to enact governance legislation in years in which the legislature became captured by one of the two major political parties, following a period of divided party control of the institution.”

(2) “As the percentage of a state’s legislature that is Republican increases, so too does the probability of a state changing its higher education governance system.”

(3)”The longer governors occupy office, the lower the probability of their states enacting structural changes. Conversely, states whose governors are newer to office appear more likely to undertake such reforms…A turnover in administration could present the most opportune time for a governor to seek to maximize control over executive branch agencies, leading to the changes in higher education governance we have documented.”

(4) “Our analysis yielded no evidence linking passage of governance legislation with the economic conditions of states, the characteristics of their college and university systems, or regional diffusion.”

In other words, historically states have not made decisions about the governance of state higher education institutions based on stated rationales but rather based on politics.

Is the situation here in Wisconsin at this moment in time really any different?

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Alisa Hicklin Fryar

    February 26, 2011

    You're right. In many ways, this is more in line with expectations than it is an exception. That said, the way this shift has been handled feels (important to stress *feels*) so undemocratic that does start to deviate from our expectations.


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