Thoughts on the History of University Systems in the U.S., by Robert Berdahl


Beginning in earnest in the 1950s, most state governments began a process of creating public university systems with a governing board and intended to coordinate and manage usually a range of institutional types and including a major public flagship university. By the late 1980s, enthusiasm for more centralized structures and state-wide “superboards” began to wane, in part because of the opposition of flagship campuses fearful of the “leveling” result they had seen in Wisconsin. The two decades after 1990 were marked both by austerity and limited growth and efforts at decentralization of authority. Reduced public funding on often a dramatic scale helps explain a campaign for greater autonomy, particularly among the top tier public universities in various states. But there are other reasons. First, the public perception of who benefits from universities – the individuals who attend them or the society as a whole – had reversed itself. Second, a corollary of this change in public attitude was the fact that public universities, especially the major flagship institutions, deprived of state support, began to engage actively in private fundraising.  Third, a new philosophy of organizational management developed, stressing the importance of local decision-making and the inefficiencies of large systems with top-down management.  Finally, the research function of universities, especially flagships, assumed an ever-larger role in the “information age.”  Universities saw themselves, and were viewed by their states, as agents of economic development.  For the “entrepreneurial university” to be truly entrepreneurial, it needed to be liberated from state and system controls. As the circumstances that have led to the decentralization of systems and state oversight continue, it is likely that the efforts of flagship research universities to secure greater independence will continue.  The health of America’s flagship public universities, which compete for talent with the nation’s best private universities, is an essential element in the strength of the nation’s research enterprise.  These universities serve the nation as well as their respective states.  The discussion about their governance should not be about whether, with institutional boards, they will cease to serve their states -- there is no reason to believe that will happen.  The discussion should be about which structure best assures the fundamental health of public flagship universities so that they can contribute the most to their states and the nation.

Robert Berdahl
Publication date: 
July 1, 2014
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)