An education hill worth climbing
In December 2017, a task force that studied the future of higher education in Oklahoma voted to give the governing boards of seven schools until June 30, 2019, to merge with larger governing boards. As the deadline nears, the number of mergers stands at zero.
This isn’t terribly surprising. These schools have been governed the same way for a long time, and so there is a natural reluctance to change. When the task force voted, some members who rejected the idea said local governance was important and worried that costs could rise if different regents were calling the shots.
On the other hand, this is disappointing because it’s emblematic of the inertia that can grip education at all levels. The 60-member task force, created by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, spent months looking at ways to improve the system and decided merging boards would advance that goal. Sixteen 16 months later no formal agreements have been announced.
The schools impacted are Carl Albert State College, Eastern Oklahoma State College, Murray State College, Redlands Community College, Seminole State College, Western Oklahoma State College and the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. All but USAO are two-year schools.
The task force recommended that those schools’ governing boards voluntarily merge with either the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents, the Oklahoma State University and A&M Colleges Board of Regents or the Regional University System of Oklahoma Board of Regents. The mergers must be approved by the Legislature; after the deadline, the state regents (with legislative approval) will decide which schools will be governed by which boards.
Glen Johnson, the state’s higher education chancellor, says “active discussions” are ongoing regarding the mergers. As a former legislator and university president (at Southeastern Oklahoma State), Johnson also understands the views of lawmakers who oppose the mergers and school officials who are uneasy about them.
However, noting that higher education has had its budget cut by 26 percent ($274 million) in the past eight years, Johnson says he tells skeptics that the existing governance model isn’t going to be sustainable forever. Mergers may result in some reconfiguring at schools, “but I think it’s a better pathway for future viability,” he told The Oklahoman recently.
Johnson says that while the state regents believe this change is best, he also thinks it may be wise to push back talk about involuntary mergers — so if some mergers aren’t completed by the June 30 deadline, there isn’t immediate action by the regents to force the changes.
That’s a nod to the fact any changes require legislative approval, and it will take work to convince some members that these moves are needed. We would caution against a lengthy delay, however, because that could result in nothing changing.
“It’s not going to be an easy hill, but we’re committed to trying to get it done,” Johnson said. It’s a hill worth climbing.