Who’s in charge of higher education?

By the end of next month, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education must finalize a master plan to outline how public colleges and universities in this state are to maintain access and affordability in the face of declining state funding, while also increasing the number of diplomas issued.

But the CCHE must not attempt to do this by micromanaging the state’s colleges and universities or ignoring the role of the governing boards of each of them. That’s what some higher-ed leaders fear could occur.

“We all have concerns,” said University of Colorado President Bruce Benson during a visit in Grand Junction Tuesday.

Some of the measures in the draft master plan “are too detailed, as they infringe on the Board’s authority to manage the University,” Colorado Mesa University President Tim Foster wrote last week in an email to officials with the Colorado Department of Higher Education, the staff arm of the CCHE.

CMU is governed by a board of trustees appointed by the governor, as are most of the public colleges and universities in Colorado. CU is governed by an elected board of regents, which was established in the state Constitution. The governing boards of other colleges and universities are also given specific budgetary and supervisory authority in the Constitution.

The CCHE and Department of Higher Education were created by the Legislature in the 1960s and have statutory authority regarding broad policy questions, approval of degree programs and division of state funds among the various institutions.

The master plan currently under consideration was mandated by the Legislature last year. And, while there are many areas of agreement in the proposals in the draft plan, a few measures cause institutional heartburn.

For instance, Foster noted, one provision pushes to increase the number of degrees issued by colleges and universities. But the plan doesn’t even mention geographic disparity in access to higher education. Reducing such disparity has been part of CMU’s mission since it was created in the 1920s.

Additionally, Foster said, “There’s not a single item in this (master plan) that discusses quality.”

Benson noted that CU’s administration and board of regents have long worked on ways to keep higher education accessible and affordable to Coloradans. But the CCHE master plan focuses largely on its own prescriptions on those issues.

The 2011 legislation requiring the master plan authorizes the CCHE to implement approved goals through performance contracts negotiated with the governing boards of each of the colleges and universities in the state. That’s fine. But the same legislation requires the CCHE and Department of Higher Education to collaborate with the governing boards and leaders of the colleges and universities in developing those goals. It appears more needs to be done in that regard before the master plan is finalized.


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