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Iowa regents eye more private collaboration
‘We have to start looking at private resources’
Just as the Board of Regents’ latest five-year strategic plan nears its end, higher education across the nation, as in Iowa, finds itself experiencing widespread disruption and is primed for a fresh start.
“This is time to say, ‘We’ve gotten really hit, we've got to make changes,” University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Professor and higher education consultant Paul N. Friga told Iowa’s nine volunteer regents during a five-hour gathering Friday aimed at developing a 2022-2027 strategic plan.
“Make big major changes while you can,” he said. “Then you come out on the upside with new investments, new programs, new energy, and you can capture a bigger share and be much better prepared for the future.”
Among the disruptions regents said they’ll need to address in their new five-year plan are enrollment declines, decreased state investment, increased reliance on digital learning, surging demand for mental health services, demographic shifts and the need for programmatic efficiencies.
“I think we have to begin to look at higher education different with regard to revenue streams, because I don't see state funding ever coming back to the level it was at in previous years,” Regent Jim Lindenmayer said. “And I don't think we can continue to depend on tuition like we are. I think we have to start looking at private resources.”
He noted that “private” has “always been kind of a dirty word” in public higher education. “But I think if we're going to adequately fund them, we're going to have to look at those kinds of streams somehow,” he said.
University collaborations with private entities — like the $1.165 billion utilities partnership the University of Iowa recently entered — can’t entirely replace state appropriations and tuition revenue, which must remain part of the funding formula, said Regent David Barker.
“Tuition increases will have to be part of the mix,” Barker said. “If appropriations aren't up and our costs are going up, tuition is going to have to increase.”
But with access and affordability still a top priority, the board’s next strategic plan could allow revenue sources “to be a little more dynamic,” Board of Regents Executive Director Mark Braun said. “But not stepping away from state support or moderate tuition increases.”
Highlighting UI’s “incredibly successful” public-private partnership for the operation of its utilities — which allowed the UI to get upfront money for creating an educational endowment — Braun asked regents whether they should promote the concept more explicitly in the strategic plan.
Noting that term can apply broadly — not just to operational collaboration but to research and industry collaboration — Regent Nancy Dunkel said, “If you put that in our strategic plan, it gives the green light to the universities to do even more.”
It would show the board is encouraging appropriate and supervised public-private partnerships that promote research, financial and operational collaboration, board President Mike Richards said.
Nonetheless, Dunkel urged care. “We don’t want the biggest pot of money to be influencing education,” she said. “So that has to be kind of weighed out, appropriately monitored, and transparent.”
Citing a recent survey the board disseminated to its own members and also to some students, faculty, staff, administrators, lawmakers and others asking about the board’s mission and priorities, Braun noted the need for more transparency or communications.
“Is that something that we need to step up in the next strategic plan?” he asked. “Make more communication, provide more material, more opportunities for engagement, not only with legislators but with public, with faculty, staff and students.”
The board earned the lowest marks for appropriately engaging stakeholders, according to the survey, which found only half of respondents agreed the board did so. Looking specifically at how the board engages external stakeholders — like legislators and the governor — just half of the lawmakers or state employees responding said regents did so appropriately.
Highlighting higher education trends the board will need to consider in crafting the strategic plan, consultant Friga warned that enrollment is declining; more campuses are freezing tuition or slowing increases; and many have overbuilt facilities.
“Most of higher ed has over-invested in physical infrastructure, over-invested with enrollments,” he said. “We've got an oversupply … We have millions and millions of excess capacity already built in.”
Friga warned the regents will need to make sometimes difficult decisions to weather the coming storm. He urged the board to diversity its universities — to make them stand apart and expand their pool of student prospects into the adult and working population.
“I would advise you to get into the associate-degree business,” he said of Iowa’s four-year campuses that offer bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees. “And go after the adult population as a serious effort,” Friga advised, urging elimination of redundant services and programs.
“We have a lot of transactional people on our campuses, and lots of new technologies will allow you to eliminate those kinds of positions,” he said. “So you've got to be ruthless with this.”
Academic program reviews will “require even more courage.”
“Let's say 10 percent are going to be discontinued,” he said. “And you're going to use criteria such as enrollments, spend per student, direct and indirect costs, market demand.”
Encouraging the regents and their universities to launch new innovative programs, too, Friga told them to be “aggressive about it.”
“And, by the way, they're going to be genuinely unhappy about this,” he said. “Because, again, no faculty want their program to be eliminated. But some of them should be eliminated. It's just, we have a hard time saying no to programs once they get started.”
The regents and staff next will draft a new strategic plan emphasizing its public service, civic responsibility and academic and research missions in hopes of bringing something for public consideration in November.
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