The systematisation of higher education in the US

Consolidation may bring greater efficiencies but the process is one yielding mixed blessings, writes Howard P. Segal

August 28, 2014

In the UK, the term “system” is commonly used to refer to all of higher education. In American public higher education, “system” is the new black – but the term is used in a different way. Here, states are consolidating formerly separate colleges into university configurations frequently called “systems”. Sometimes a single system comprises all the state’s four-year institutions plus those with graduate and professional programmes. The University of Maine system, with its seven campuses, is among these.

In other cases, different states have two or more wholly separate university systems. For example, Alabama has two: the University of Alabama and Auburn University systems. And Texas, with six, has the most: the Texas A&M, University of Texas, Texas Tech, University of Houston, Texas State University and University of North Texas systems. Each system, moreover, often includes at least two distinct campuses. For instance, Texas A&M has 11 campuses.

The common purpose of university systems is always the same: consolidation for greater efficiency, greater savings and greater student access to various programmes and schools. Duplication, especially in hard economic times, can be wasteful. But in practice, there are mixed blessings.

What usually began as small administrative offices for the entire system invariably grew larger because of new laws, new metrics and new academic and non-academic initiatives that required ever more staff. Private institutions have hardly been immune to these bureaucratic enlargements but are not under the same degree of public scrutiny.

Although the top administrative ranks are not entirely responsible for these developments, there is an overall correlation between the growth of public university systems and the diminution of faculty, both in influence and in sheer numbers of permanent full-timers.

Implementing “systematisation” is a principal dilemma facing American higher education today. Should it be a process of standardisation, of making all components equal, even when lowering quality? Or should higher education try to maintain its historical differences among the components of its systems, even amid charges of “elitism”? Naturally, no one simple answer suits every system, but it is useful to put “system” in historical perspective in order to recognise the concept’s own complex past.

“System” was initially applied in the US to technological networks in transport (canals, roads, railway lines) and communications (telegraphs and telephones). Ordinary citizens who experienced these systems on a daily basis knew the term. Before the American Civil War, however, the parts of those relatively small transport and communications systems were deemed equally important. If one part failed, they might all fail. As machines and tools became more complex, systems were increasingly thought of as unequal: if one part failed, it might not necessarily doom the rest of the machine.

It would be instructive for contemporary system administrators, trustees and state officials to appreciate that systems can still include both equal and unequal parts. Even the most centralised administrative configurations can still allow for greater autonomy of the individual components and remain true to the rich tradition of the “system” in the US.

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