Április 19-23.

The History of Governance and Finance in the United States Higher Education System (17th-21st centuries)

dr. Michael Houdyshell

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Dr. Michael Houdyshell
Assistant Professor-Leadership, Technology, and Research
College of Education
Florida Gulf Coast University

            Before the United States was even recognized as a self-governing country, free from the rule of King George III and Great Britain, a burgeoning cluster of institutions of higher education were founded in the future new republic. These institutions were typically aligned with the teachings of the church, and governed by boards consisting of members appointed by the church, colonial court, or legislature, and governed by a board of trustees (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). University presidents were appointed by this same board of trustees and responsible solely to the board. Financial support was given primarily by colonial legislatures, except for The College of Philadelphia, which relied on collecting monies from a group of ‘subscribers’, who would then choose trustees. This shape of college governance, run by non-academic boards of trustees, employing a president to run an institution, would become the prevailing pattern of college governance throughout higher education in the United States, even to the current day.

            During the 18th and 19th centuries, when many colleges and universities were being formed, most institutions were typically formed under one of three governing types. 1.) Civil corporations-a group of individuals received a charter from a state legislature. These became what we know today as public state institutions, and were funded predominately by state legislature expenditures. 2.) Private colleges were founded by a religious group. Organized by a church, it would appoint trustees to govern the institution of individuals, either within or outside the denomination. They were funded by church members and affiliations. 3.) Colleges formed under municipal backings, as well as, private, nondenominational institutions. They were funded by appeals to the general public to help support higher education in their communities (Cohen & Kisker, 2010).

            During the late 19th century, and into the first half of the 20th century, governance in higher education became increasingly non-religious. Governance structures shifted in the “direction of administrative hierarchies and bureaucratic management system” (Cohen & Kisker, 2010, pp. 161-162). Even as faculty gained more power in terms of hiring, curriculum, and degree requirements, governing board members became more like corporate directors, who tended to be individuals with a business background, in the case of public institutions, appointed by state governors and legislatures (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). The main functions of governing boards were in oversight relating to matters of the institution, in the public, and raising funding for important projects. One important distinction, governing board members often served as a buffer between the university and the state legislature, not often swayed by the politics ‘of the moment’. This was supposed to help ensure university autonomy on decisions of curriculum, faculty, and priorities.

            In the latter half of the 20th century, a continued expansion of public universities and greater state-level coordination, lead to an increasing view of higher education as a public good (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). Several commissions produced reports about the status of higher education in the United States now and going forward. One such commission, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, advocated that “states should be judged on the extent to which they offered access and equality in educational opportunity. They (states) should encourage educational diversity, preserving college autonomy even while insisting on public accountability” (Cohen & Kisker, 2010, pp. 250-251). The unintended consequence-increased public influence over the conduct of institutions, including the opening of governing boards to more individuals, who acted as more ‘watchdogs’, and more officials appointed by governors. This began to compromise the existence of the university governing board as an independent agency serving as a buffer between a campus and the public and legislature (Cohen & Kisker, 2010).

            The last part of the 20th century included a continued progression toward secularization and extramural influences on higher education. This included calls for more accountability, with the concept of a self-governing campus becoming no longer. State governors became more influential in higher education, and the governance of higher education became more consolidated. This trend continued into the first part of the 21st century, in addition to increased privatization and corporatism in higher education (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). States began to cede more regulatory and budgetary control back to individual institutions, with some states, giving each four-year college or university its own independent governing board (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). During this time, the public began to view universities more like corporations, concerned if the gains in public benefits from higher education justify the public resources required.  This debate continues, as the cost of attaining a university degree in the United States continues to rise, with many students struggling to find the resources to afford their education.

Cohen, A. M. & Kisker, C. B. (2010). The shaping of American higher education (2nd. Ed.)


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