The recent interest in harnessing the collective capacity of public institutions of higher education is challenging long-held beliefs about system coordination. Constricted state resources, globalization, market forces, and new technologies suggest that new governance structures are not only a necessity but an opportunity to better connect system institutions. To build such collective capacity, public systems will be well-served to adopt new forms of governance and challenge historic or misaligned policies and activities.
The purpose of this study was to examine the primary means by which system office staff coordinate institutional activities within academic planning. The study was constructed around identification of bureaucratic, market, and network practices in selected governing board systems to better understand the existing system policies and staff activities, as well as the shifts and associated challenges being experienced in the system governance of academic planning.
The population for this study included six state systems of higher education consisting of 2- and 4-year institutions. An initial document analysis of state statutes, system policies, and recent system reports provided a base understanding of the policies and other factors driving each system’s academic planning activities. A subsequent survey of system chief academic officers and their staff identified the importance of the policy elements, associated activities, and critical stakeholders for system academic initiatives, and program approval and review. The subsequent interviews of survey respondents explored the context and meanings associated with the survey responses, as well as challenges and future shifts in the approaches to system academic planning. The findings and conclusions from the study suggest that system policies for program approval and associated system office staff activities are predominantly, if not exclusively, focused on system expectations of individual institutions with some limited but notable examples of interinstitutional program collaboration. Similarly, system office staff face significant challenges in simultaneously building collaborative capacity and balancing the policy interests of state policymakers, national organizations, and industry with the academic culture and local autonomy of system institutions. The state systems in the study noted recent and substantial shifts in system governance of academic planning resulting from enactment of state or system initiatives for degree completion, removal of bureaucratic elements that slow system processes, and/or delegation of more authority to system institutions. In addition, system office academic affairs staff noted their substantial interest and role in facilitating academic collaboration across institutions.
Most of the state systems in the study are in the early stages of or stated interest in elevating support for interinstitutional collaboration, including changes to system policies, merging of administrative structures, and development of collaborative agreements to support interinstitutional activity. The study also indicates that system office staff are facing significant challenges in engaging faculty in collaborative activity across multiple and loosely coupled levels of administration. Significant shifts in system policies and staff activities are necessary to remove or better align the predominance of bureaucratic and market mechanisms with system efforts at academic collaboration. System leaders would be well served in engaging their institutional faculty and administration in casting a vision and clearing the way for network capacity to emerge.