President Sidney Ribeau (left) confers with Gov. Ted Strickland during the governor’s campus visit March 28.

President Sidney Ribeau (left) confers with Gov. Ted Strickland during the governor's campus visit March 28.

New, unified state university system ordered by governor

Ohio higher education institutions woke up to a new reality Aug. 3 with the announcement of an order by Gov. Ted Strickland creating a “University System of Ohio” that will unite the state’s 13 four-year universities, 23 two-year colleges, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine and regional adult Career Centers.

The new system, planned to go into effect in January, will not replace the institutions’ governance structures but will increase cooperation and collaboration among the schools while keeping tuition down and raising quality, the governor said.

Calling for a “new Ohio birthright” of access to higher education, Strickland charged Eric Fingerhut, state chancellor of higher education, with the creation of a 10-year plan setting benchmarks for improving quality and affordability and a timeline to achieve the unification.

President Sidney Ribeau, who had met with the governor along with the other state university and college presidents and the superintendents of the state’s Career Centers at the Inter-University Council Aug. 2, said representatives from the various institutions will join with the chancellor and Bruce Johnson, IUC chair, to develop the plan, which is due March 31, 2008.

No immediate changes
Ribeau described the move to the unified system as “part of an effort to give greater support to higher education.” How the plan will ultimately be worked out is as yet unclear, he said, but there will be no immediate changes. “There will still be the board of regents, and universities will keep their individual boards of trustees. There will be a higher degree of coordination between the Career Centers and between the regional campuses, however,” Ribeau said. The centers deliver adult education and basic literacy programs.

About 80 percent, or 470,000, of Ohio’s 600,000 college students attend state universities. Since taking office in January, Strickland has initiated several changes in the state’s higher education program. He elevated the state Board of Regents chancellorship to a Cabinet-level position, and pushed through a budget that gave more money to the colleges while freezing undergraduate tuition for two years.

Centers of excellence to reduce duplication
While the colleges will retain their autonomy under the unified system, Strickland said, the plan will identify “centers of excellence” in institutions. In his discussion of the unified system, Fingerhut said, “Our university presidents, deans and provosts understand that the proliferation of knowledge has made it impossible for their schools to be world leaders in every field. Differentiating the missions of our universities and building centers of excellence that are recognized across the globe is both an opportunity for our system to excel and a necessity in today’s world.”

The centers, which will be named in cooperation with the schools, will be based on each institution’s individual mission and strongest programs.

“Each institution will be asked to come up with a clearly defined mission statement that states its unique characteristics,” Ribeau explained. “The governor’s goal is to create top-level programs,” he added, while recognizing the need for each institution to have the necessary array of disciplines in both the arts and the sciences.

Ribeau added that the governor believes a key factor for success will be better dissemination and better distribution systems so that students in every region will have access to the classes they need. The president predicts that a greater focus will be placed on distance and online education.

According to Chancellor Fingerhut, there is also a need for greater articulation between the state’s two- and four-year institutions—“which can be done without any extra legislation. Coordination is not more costly and doesn’t require any additional personnel,” Ribeau commented.

One organizational change that has been announced is that, beginning in 2009, the directors of the Career Centers will report to the chancellor instead of the superintendent of the state Department of Education, Ribeau said. Fingerhut pledged that the state will take “full advantage of the opportunities to reach adult students presented by the transfer” of the centers’ programs to the Board of Regents.

Developing the plan
The new philosophy will impact decision-making on all aspects of Ohio higher education, Fingerhut said in his remarks to public higher-education leaders.

Ribeau said the planning process will comprise five study teams: Systemwide Goals, Economic Growth, Affordability, Funding, and Marketing and Outreach.

Based on the content under discussion, the appropriate person or people—whether the president, CFO or others—at the respective institutions will meet with the chancellor and IUC President Johnson and his staff to provide input on shaping the plan, Ribeau said, adding there is no timeline for meetings as yet.

On the whole, “The overall idea calls for more alignment and regional coordination,” he said.

August 6, 2007