The University System of Ohio was created not to cut programs at state institutions but to steward resources, promote a common vision and strengthen colleges’ and universities’ areas of excellence, Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut said Nov. 7.
President Sidney Ribeau (left) with Eric Fingerhut
The chancellor, the first ever to hold an Ohio Cabinet position, was on campus last Wednesday and Thursday as part of a tour of state colleges and universities. “The goal of the ‘Campus Conversations’ visits is to spend an extended enough period of time to really get a feel for the campus,” he said. He met with student groups, faculty, the provost, president and the board of trustees, and attended a musical performance. He also visited some of the programs BGSU has identified as its “centers of excellence,” a key concept of the new university system.
At a meeting with elected leaders of campus governance groups, chairs of college advising councils, deans and others, Fingerhut discussed what the system will mean for the state and took questions from attendees.
Faculty Senate Chair Dr. Patrick Pauken, leadership and policy studies, expressed what has perhaps been on everyone’s mind when he asked a question submitted by a faculty member: What does the new system mean for individual campuses and specifically, what programs at BGSU might be eliminated?
Fingerhut responded that the new system calls for a different approach, in which every university will provide a “comprehensive, quality education” and develop areas of excellence that are magnets both nationally and even internationally. The state must stop the “disinvestment” in higher education if it is to become economically viable, he added, but to do that it must choose wisely where to put its resources. BGSU President Sidney Ribeau, as past president of the Inter-University Council, was involved in advocating for stronger state support, the chancellor noted.
“Everyone can’t do everything. We must make priority decisions,” he said. “Schools must identify their centers of excellence and make choices. To be truly good at something, you need to invest in it over time and stay ahead of the competition.
“In the past, we’ve shied away from making those difficult choices,” he said, which was understandable because “if the state isn’t investing anyway and you can’t really become what you want to be, why do it?”
“Now,” he added, “we will expect you to make those choices. But I will judge you on whether your choices are real.”
The state needs not 13 identical universities but a diverse offering to serve all its citizens’ needs, the chancellor said.
Categorization of institutions
As part of his response to a question about categorization of institutions, Fingerhut said the University System of Ohio does not entail reducing research. “Everyone must do research because that’s at the core of what it means to be a university, but not everyone needs to be a comprehensive research university like Ohio State,” he said. As the seventh-leading research institution in the nation and the second in industrial research (something that is not widely known, he added), OSU is “our best shot” at national prominence and economic growth and needs to continue all its research programs.
Ohio State is “the 21st-century version of what a land-grant university should be, and as such has statewide responsibility. It must find ways to partner with other universities to raise the system as a whole,” he said.
Other institutions, however, will serve differing purposes, though all must help support their geographic areas. Some of the more urban universities will naturally “play an important role in the global competitiveness of their region,” he said.
Fingerhut is eager to reintroduce the “four corners” concept of Ohio higher education, he said. BGSU, Kent State, Ohio University and Miami University are all “extraordinary undergraduate institutions, and each does important research.” With two about to celebrate their 200th anniversaries and the other two (BGSU included) approaching their centennials, they are “part of our unique and special history in the state,” he added. “So we’re not new to the question of the role of higher education in our state but are restoring it—not creating a new role.”
The strategy will be to increase the ability of institutions to encourage students to “choose Ohio first,” he said, adding that BGSU is also well positioned to be a magnet that draws people from outside the state.
Future of arts and humanities
Another questioner asked about the role of the arts and humanities in state higher education, given the recent emphasis on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Fingerhut reassured the participants that the Strickland administration and the university system fully recognize the importance of the arts and humanities, realizing that the “‘essential skills’ for success—creativity and the ability to think, communicate and make connections—come from the arts and humanities.”
The regents understand that it is important for all students to have those skills, “just as it is important that everyone have a good understanding of science,” he said.
Role of the university system
The chancellor also expanded on the role the University System of Ohio can play in promoting and supporting public higher education, which educates 80 percent of college students in the state.
One function will be to improve the image of Ohio’s colleges and universities, he said. “We need to let citizens know what good is going on in higher education,” he said, adding that the story often goes largely untold.
The system can help “brand” state institutions positively, the chancellor maintained. “Being part of a state that lifts up, protects and promotes higher education will be beneficial.”
By supporting higher education, the system will help Ohio reestablish its prominence nationally and economically. Higher education must be the economic engine and is the most important part of Ohio’s future, he said.
“We need people. Ohio isn’t growing, and what else but higher education can bring people here and keep them here?”