The Obscurity of Appointed Public Boards

Governor Chafee’s objection to 3% raises negotiated into a nearly approved contract at the University of Rhode Island (apart from being surprising, given the support of organized labor for his election campaign) has raised interesting points regarding the relationship between the state, appointed boards, and public institutions like URI.  Here’s URI faculty union president Timothy George in Saturday’s Providence Journal:

“To the extent that funding gives you some voice, [state] funding is so low that I don’t think the governor is entitled to a voice in running the university,” George said.

The state pays 14 percent of the overall cost of running the public college system. It pays about 8 percent of URI’s operating budget.

State control of the public university system has only an indirect relationship with the funding that it provides.  It is not like a publicly traded corporation, for which the ownership of shares grants authority in decision making.

In the broadest sense, public colleges and universities are subject to the authority of the General Assembly to regulate them via statutes.  For a closer level of executive authority, the law establishes a Board of Governors.  The state’s direct influence over that board comes mainly through the state governor’s ability to appoint its members, but he or she cannot remove them without cause.  At the next stage, the statute restricts the board’s power to “engage in the operation or administration of any subordinate committee, university, junior college, or community college” beyond big-picture matters of budget and organization, proscribing an area of authority for each institution’s hired administration.

As Governor Chafee proved when he thoroughly overhauled the board of governors with his own appointments, public higher education is a creature of state government by construction, not by investment.  And as its representatives have proven during ongoing state-budget discussions, the universities and colleges are not shy about evoking the state’s responsibility to support them or to present tuition increases in opposition to state funding cuts or stagnation.

On that last count, it is curious to read faculty union representatives’ arguing that “the state government is in financial trouble, but URI is not.”  The recent talk, in the public square, has been of a tuition increase of 9.5%.  Why a healthy organization would have to burden its clients so dramatically deserves public airing.