University Autonomy is Best System for State

University Autonomy is Best System for State

Detroit News

September 09. 2010

Michael A. Boulus


For more than a century, Michigan has had an entrepreneurial model of management for its public universities.


University autonomy, limiting intrusion of politicians and bureaucrats into the operation of our 15 public universities, was written into the state's 1963 Constitution. It has allowed community-driven university boards to meet the needs of Michigan's students and communities, particularly businesses, in a nimble fashion. It's worked well.


No other state boasts such a diverse group of high-quality public universities.


Now some are suggesting that we replace that entrepreneurial, market-driven local control with a bureaucratic Lansing-centric governing system for Michigan's universities.


This would eliminate the local accountability and reduce opportunities for collaboration with local businesses and community leaders, instead subjecting students to the whims of politicians and bureaucrats, and forcing local leaders to beg Lansing for the programs they need.


Support for a centrally controlled system comes, ostensibly, because Michigan universities -- reacting to a 16 percent cut in state support since fiscal year 2002-03 (at a time when inflation has increased 13 percent) have raised tuition to maintain quality and address growing enrollment.


Even with those tuition increases, student demand is at record levels, an indication that the market for higher education is still robust.


State support for higher education in Michigan has slipped to 10th lowest per student in the nation. State scholarship aid has been virtually eliminated by the Legislature.


Michigan's universities have reacted to the financial challenges by making major changes to their operations.


Some have raised staff contributions to health care coverage. Others have eliminated health care for retirees. Some have eliminated programs, and others have added programs where demand is high, to gain additional students.


Michigan's universities are collaborating as never before. They have joined to purchase energy, share insurance expenses, develop compatible high-speed computer networking operations, review program offerings, and myriad other cost-saving measures that operate under the radar of Lansing politicians and special interest groups.


Entrepreneurial universities under autonomous leadership have brought about great changes for Michigan that would likely have been squelched by risk-adverse bureaucrats.


Michigan cannot afford universities that look like our highway system, the epitome of a centrally controlled, bureaucratically managed and politically underfinanced operation.


Autonomy has worked to make our universities among the best in the world.


The entrepreneurship, competition and accountability delivered by autonomy is the right management structure for the future, too.


Michael A. Boulus is executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan. E-mail comments to


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