Coordinating board getting more power

Sunday, July 8, 2007

At meetings of the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education, board members often wondered just why they bothered to meet.

"We had influence, but we had little authority to make things happen," said Cape Girardeau businesswoman and board chairwoman Kathy Swan. "We were saying, 'Give us an important job to do, otherwise why are we here?'"

A new Missouri law, which takes effect Aug. 28, will give the board what it wants: more authority in coordinating higher education in the state.

The new authority ranges from administering a new program of financial aid for college students to policing tuition increases at public colleges and universities.

The law also gives more power to the commissioner of higher education to settle disputes between schools. In order to receive state funds, public institutions must agree to submit to binding arbitration, with the commissioner serving as the arbitrator.

Even with the added power, commissioner Robert Stein said he would rather get institutions to resolve differences cooperatively. "I prefer to avoid arbitration," he said.

But Swan said the state's new power to arbitrate disputes could prompt schools to try harder to settle their differences. "It is an incentive for collaboration," she said.

The new law also allows the board to penalize institutions that disregard state education policies or rules. Fines can total as much as 1 percent of a college's state appropriation.

As for tuition, the new law allows public colleges and universities to raise tuition as much as the rate of inflation. If a college wants a bigger increase, it must apply and obtain a waiver from the state. If the waiver isn't granted and the college imposes a higher than allowed tuition increase, the coordinating board can cut the school's state appropriation by 5 percent, Swan said.

The law also requires public colleges and universities to post certain information on their Web sites, including the names and academic credentials of all faculty and instructor ratings. It also requires school to post course schedules, the instructors assigned to each course and information about which classes are being taught by graduate assistants.

The Missouri Department of Higher Education must develop institutional and statewide performance measures and biannually report to a state legislative committee on its progress in meeting that goal.

Swan said it could take a year to develop the performance measures. Approval of performance measures rests with the coordinating board, she said.

All of this is good news for a coordinating board that until now has been frustrated by a lack of formal power, Swan said.

"My overall view is that it gives us a greater influence on the system of higher education in the state," she said.

The coordinating board now has more authority to see that tax dollars are wisely and efficiently spent and that the tax money is being spent on programs that the state needs, Swan said.

Stein, the higher education commissioner, said the new law doesn't take away the governing powers of local boards of regents or curators. "I don't think anyone wants a system whereby a centralized governance structure is micromanaging local institutions," he said. "The best governance systems have built-in checks and balances."

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