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The Case for Meaningful Public University Oversight

Culture-war conflicts obscure our neglect of a responsibility for holistic, constructive legislative oversight of public higher education. Lawmakers should hold governing boards accountable for meeting the needs of their students.

UNC-Chapel Hill historical marker
State lawmakers who established the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill declared it “the indispensable duty of every legislature to consult the happiness of a rising generation” and expected the university to similarly prioritize students’ needs.
(Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)
As state lawmakers draw the ire of political opponents by wading into culture wars on college campuses, we’re having the wrong conversation. The question essential to the future of public colleges and universities is not whether a state’s elected officials ought to intervene when they spy something on campus they don’t like. The question is what responsibility they have to ensure that the institution is serving the needs of students and taxpayers. And this leads to a more relevant question: Have they been living up to that responsibility?

The lawmakers who established the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — one of three schools that claim the title of the nation’s oldest public university — had this to say about their responsibility to their young citizens: “It is the indispensable duty of every legislature to consult the happiness of a rising generation, and endeavor to fit them for an honorable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying the strictest attention to their education. …” They expected the faculty and administration of that university to similarly prioritize the needs of their students.

On the surface, at least, this ethos still exists. Many land-grant institutions take their duty to serve the public good to an even higher level, specifically mentioning their duty to advance their states’ overall well-being. “As Pennsylvania’s land-grant university, we provide unparalleled access to education and public service to support the citizens of the commonwealth and beyond,” reads a portion of Penn State University’s mission. It’s a reminder that it’s entirely appropriate for lawmakers to ask if the research at the university is proving relevant for the vitality of the state and taxpayers alike.

While many conservative state lawmakers are ramping up efforts to defund diversity, equity and inclusion offices, we’re neglecting the deeper responsibility to exercise holistic, constructive oversight. Drive-by oversight that merely reacts to political controversies misses the point, particularly in an era where a lack of trust in institutions is widespread: Americans’ confidence in higher education has fallen from 57 percent to 36 percent in less than a decade.

A few examples in the recent past not directly related to culture-war controversies illuminate the deep need for meaningful oversight. Consider, for example, the egregious sexual abuse scandal and cover-up that rocked Michigan State University or the widespread college admission scandal made public in 2019 that included several public universities. Important too are tuition and fee increases that have far outpaced inflation without yielding improved educational performance or employment success. These are important pocketbook issues for many American families, and certainly for the students who enroll in public universities.

New Jersey passed a law in 2023 requiring more financial accountability for its state universities after dramatic cuts at New Jersey City University. On top of that, another New Jersey college needed to merge with Montclair State University because of financial problems. About half of the state’s public universities and colleges run deficits, according to a 2021 report. “The taxpayers who help support higher education and the students and families who pay the bills to attend these schools need to know that their investments are used responsibly and effectively,” said state Sen. Joe Cryan, a Democrat who was one of the 2023 bill’s sponsors.

Responsible oversight and governance of state universities should reflect our tradition of separation of powers, which should include lawmakers holding governing boards accountable when they become captive to the institutions they are tasked with monitoring or simply fail in their oversight duties.

Michigan State University was fined $4.5 million in 2019 by the federal government for its cover-up of sexual crimes on campus. The Office for Civil Rights concluded that the university “repeatedly failed to take appropriate and prompt action to protect its students.” Good governance and oversight are not only fiscally responsible but can serve to protect students from abhorrent crimes and a culture of corruption.

Controversial practices like an obsession with DEI and the teaching of critical race theory became entrenched on many campuses because administrators know there are no consequences, and they hardly ever answer to lawmakers or taxpayers. In a recent podcast at the Daily Signal, Cornell University law professor William Jacobson stressed an essential point: Higher education, he said, “cannot be reformed from within.” Like most every institution, it needs appropriate guardrails, such as the kind of checks and balances modeled in America’s constitutional government.

Ultimately, oversight is less about picking and choosing ideological battles to wade into but about committing to the prolonged and sustained efforts that benefit the university, the state and those funding it. Only then will we truly have public universities that uphold their founding missions instead of strategic chess pieces in today’s cultural wars.

Ray Nothstine is a senior writer and editor and a Future of Freedom Fellow at the State Policy Network. He manages and edits American Habits, an online publication focused on federalism and self-government.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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