From staff reports
Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut today presented to Gov. Ted Strickland and the state legislature a much-anticipated strategic plan for higher education in Ohio. The University System of Ohio "Strategic Plan for Higher Education: 2008-2017" contains detailed recommendations that seek to transform the effectiveness of Ohio's higher education system and increase the state's talent pool. Overall, the plan has many elements that resonate with Ohio University's vision.
"This is a good day for education in the state of Ohio and a good day for us," President Roderick J. McDavis said. "Under the Strickland administration, higher education is at the top of the priority list in this state. The chancellor has shown great vision and leadership in giving it form. The momentum is with us, and that's a very good thing.
"This strategic plan incorporates many of the same initiatives that have risen to top in our five-year planning process also," McDavis added. "I am pleased with how well it meshes with our vision for the future of Ohio University."
The overarching goal of the USO plan is to improve educational attainment in Ohio, which ranks 37th among the states for the percentage of residents with bachelor's degrees. Ohio must graduate more students with higher education degrees, keep graduates in the state and attract more talent to Ohio, according to the plan.
"If the state of Ohio is to grow and prosper, it must raise the education level of its population. The goal of this 10-year strategic plan is to raise the educational attainment of our state each year and to close the gap between Ohio and competitor states and nations," Fingerhut writes in the plan.
Since the USO's creation by executive order last August, Fingerhut has worked to develop the plan through a collaborative process involving the presidents of Ohio's institutions of higher education. McDavis, who is serving this year as chair of the Inter-University Council comprising 13 Ohio pubic universities and one independent medical school, has promoted the interests of four-year institutions throughout the process.
"There has been a willingness to listen to what we've said along the way," McDavis said. "From what we learned today, I see some very strong elements. Once we've had a chance to delve in deeper, I hope that any concerns we might encounter can be addressed in ways that serve the best interests of Ohio University."
Four operational goals -- access, quality, affordability and efficiency, and economic leadership -- are broken into 20 systemwide accountability measures that will be assessed to determine statewide success. Now that the plan has been unveiled, Ohio's public higher education institutions have been given until the end of the year to determine how they will contribute to achieving those broad measures covering goal areas as diverse as total enrollment, invention disclosures and start-ups, state spending per full-time equivalent student, industry support for research, number of students engaged in internships and actual-versus-expected graduation rate.
"We mean to be accountable," Finergut said in a news conference following the presentation.
The chancellor has made it clear that not every institution will contribute to every measure, and different institutions may contribute in varying ways to the same measures. For many schools, this task means undertaking a thorough self-assessment, but Ohio University has made considerable strides already.
Advantages that put Ohio University out front, Executive Vice President and Provost Kathy Krendl said, include the fact that the university community has had the opportunity to shape the institution's Five-Year Vision OHIO Implementation Plan and that it is built around accountability measures.
"Our campus has done an incredible amount of hard work already," she said. "All of our constituent groups have given thoughtful and substantive feedback. Instead of being at the starting gate, we're way down the track. Our objectives are coming into sharper focus."
Krendl also noted that the university has unique strengths and established excellence in many of the plan's critical areas.
"Certainly we are known for the things the plan points out: our record of nationally competitive awards bolstered by our unique Honors Tutorial College, our national standing for predicted graduation rate, our model of service to the region and the way we help students from diverse backgrounds realize their promise.
"But there are many other strengths we want to promote, such as deep involvement in economic development in the region and state; programs, such as our College of Osteopathic Medicine, that are way out front in retaining talent in the state; and the partnerships with community colleges that University Outreach has developed to help meet the USO's 30-mile promise.
Centers of excellence will focus on programs that are "nationally and internationally ranked" at each institution and able to attract people from inside and outside the state, Fingerhut said in the news conference. He said individual institutions would identify their centers, which would be distributed across the state, and build upon assets in the various regions.
"You'll see a very wide array that offers students options.... That will take resources, and that requires the institutions to prioritize and not treat all programs equally, which results in mediocrity, not excellence," he said. The state will establish an Excellence Fund to add support to these centers through a combination of state, university and private funds, Fingerhut said.
Ohio University has a head start on the process for identifying centers of excellence, according to Krendl.
"We are well-prepared to work with our university community to identify these areas of excellence in teaching and research within the time frame set out," Krendl said.
Ohio University is what the plan calls a "Four Corner" pillar institution -- one of four universities within the state that offer residential, liberal arts educational opportunities of high academic quality and with select research excellence. These four universities, which also include Bowling Green, Kent State and Miami, will be expected to grow within the framework of these characteristics and build on their unique centers of excellence while providing strong general education.
McDavis said the next step is to absorb the 140-page document before identifying more specifically what it means for Ohio University. "Although we've had a general idea of where the concepts are heading, we're just seeing the detail today," he said.
The legislature also will be absorbing the document and responding, he added.
While some parts of the USO plan can be implemented immediately -- and some already are under way, such as the seniors-to-sophomores program and select state-supported research and scholarship programs such as Choose Ohio First -- others require further clarification, planning or legislative approval.
For instance, the plan says, "The success of students, the integration of institutions, and opportunities to improve efficiencies and trim costs would be bolstered by a move toward a common academic calendar across all of the universities in the state."
McDavis said Ohio University would weigh the issues before making any decision about abandoning the current system of quarters.
"We will consider all information our campus had gathered, which yielded a split decision, and we'll consult with our public university partners in Ohio that are also still on a quarters system," he said. "Ultimately, we'll do what's best for the system and our university."
The draft does not attempt to put fine points on most areas, including fiscal components, but the chancellor emphasized that "our goal is not a cheap, low-quality system, but an affordable, high-quality system."
"We were pleased to see the chancellor is recommending that institutions set tuition and fees, with a certain level of flexibility in how that's accomplished. He's also saying that funding formulas may be tied to quality and efficiency rather than simply enrollment, and I think that's a good direction to explore," Vice President for Finance and Administration Bill Decatur said. "We look forward to participating in regent-led consultations on these funding issues and the funding formula over the next several months. We will not know the final outcomes of these efforts until the next budget is passed."
Decatur acknowledges that the plan's commitment to increase support for higher education will be a key component.
"The university is certainly committed to doing its part toward affordability," he said. "The plan also calls for the state to make a significant additional investment in higher education. It can only be successful if that investment is made."
Overall, Decatur said, "Ohio University is well positioned to respond to, and benefit from, the link between funding and quality and efficiency."
The chancellor stressed that this plan contains long-term recommendations, not short-term fixes. It represents a comprehensive reform capable of positioning Ohio over the next decade as an economically competitive state.
"It isn't a strategic plan in the sense we might think of a strategic plan at the institutional level," McDavis said. "Many things will evolve as the state and its institutions of higher education continue to shape and adjust the particulars. This is not where it ends, this is where it begins."
He added that it will take some time before he and others in the university have a chance to delve into the full document. He expects the university will find much to like and also have a few questions and recommendations.
"Certainly if there are items that we're not comfortable with, we will discuss those with our university community and carry the feedback forward," he said.
But overall he's encouraged with how the plan speaks to Ohio University's emphasis on quality, not just to getting students in seats.
"There is an understanding that quality education and quality students will make the difference in reaching the goals," McDavis said. "We know we can thrive within those values."
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