Monday, January 31, 2011

Value of HECB's independent voice on higher ed issues discussed at hearing

How Washington’s higher education programs should be governed and administered, and whether an independent citizen board is essential in developing sound higher education solutions for the future, were discussed Wednesday during public hearings on three bills before the Senate Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee.
Meanwhile, the Governor’s related-but-separate proposal to create a new Department of Education also was mentioned several times, even though it wasn’t on the schedule. That draft legislation is expected to be introduced soon.
Wednesday’s hearing on SB 5182 would abolish the Higher Education Coordinating Board and transfer its administrative responsibilities over student financial aid to the Office of Financial Management (OFM). Other HECB duties—including higher education system planning, new-degree approval, and consumer protection related to out-of-state institutions—would be transferred to other state agencies, to the higher education institutions themselves, or would be abandoned.
Seattle Sen. Scott White, the bill’s prime sponsor, noted that the state faces a major budget crisis in which cuts to health care for low-income families and reductions in K-12 education have been proposed. “We have the responsibility to look at efficiencies in a variety of areas and make administrative reforms,” White said.
Some agencies are created and serve a critical purpose for a time, “but the landscape can change,” White said.
However, several speakers—including two current board members, students, institutional representatives and the HECB’s current and former executive directors—emphasized the important roles the agency still has to play.
Former HECB Executive Director Ann Ryherd (formerly Ann Daley), noted that about 97 percent of the HECB’s budget is really financial aid money on its way to students.  “I don’t think you’re going to save a lot of money. I would propose this could be a penny-wise, pound-foolish move,” Ryherd said.
With the remaining 3 percent of its budget, the independent citizen board and its staff perform a variety of valuable functions, including developing higher education system plans that offer a broader perspective than those of individual colleges and universities.
Assuming the economy is on the cusp of recovery, pressure will soon grow to create new higher education institutions in the state, Ryherd said. Evaluating those proposals from a broad public, rather than a regional, perspective will be important.  “You make your best decisions when you have the best information,” she said.
HEC Board members Jesus Hernandez and Roberta Greene also emphasized the important contribution that independent citizen boards make to such decisions.
“In a time when everyone is advocating for their share of state revenues, are our decisions about higher education investments and funding best made through a wholly political process, or should we rely more on well-researched analysis that takes into account short and long term implications in the context of the broad public interest?” Hernandez asked.
Hernandez noted the breadth of experience possessed by his fellow board members, who include a former president of WSU, a superintendent of schools, a former executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, senior executives at Battelle and Weyerhaeuser, and business and civic leaders from Seattle, Spokane and Vancouver. 
Greene emphasized the collective effort and citizen input reflected in the state’s Strategic Master Plan for Higher Education, a roadmap that, she believes, would be “scrapped” under SB 5182.
“The plan provides our state’s commitment to achieving greater diversity in higher education.    It also is a high level of commitment to significantly increasing the number of underrepresented students who complete postsecondary degrees and certificates. It also is a commitment to making college affordable by maintaining stable tuition rates and increasing financial assistance,” Greene said.
“I believe strongly that we provide a forum and vehicle for board discussion on state level issues that reach cross the sectors of higher education and also between higher education and K-12,” Greene said.
During the hearing, one member of the Senate committee, Jim Kastama of Puyallup, suggested that making changes in the HECB, rather than eliminating it, might be another solution. “I see the benefit of the HECB, but I don’t know if you’re there yet,” Kastama said.
Another bill on Wednesday’s committee schedule, SB 5107, would create a new governance system for public baccalaureate institutions in Washington. The separate boards of regents and boards of trustees at the institutions would be replaced with a single, 19-member Board of Regents.
Another governance bill, Senate Bill 5108, would abolish the Council of Presidents, a voluntary association of the state’s public baccalaureate institutions.         

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