Plan for Arizona higher education needs 'focus' to be 'excellent'

By Keren Raz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Major change is brewing in Arizona's higher education system.

Less than 10 days after finals ended, the Arizona Board of Regents released a proposal that called for a significant reorganization of Arizona's higher education system. The proposal proposed the creation of a new system of regional universities that would emphasize undergraduate education instead of research and offer four-year degrees. As part of the proposal, UA South would become Southern Arizona University and split from the UA. ASU West would split from ASU to become Central Arizona University. Northern Arizona University would also join the regional university system as the largest branch.

Regents President Chris Herstam, has finally started a conversation about the future of Arizona's higher education. Arizona is among the top five fastest growing states in the country, and the higher education system needs to start expanding to meet that need. As President Peter Likins wrote, "Our university system is not properly structured to accommodate a tidal wave of new students. It needs a dramatic makeover one that will complement the changes currently underway in each of the three universities." Our university system does need to change to accommodate student enrollment, which is projected to spike 48 percent in the next 15 years.

The proposal is an important first step in the discussion, but there is one void that needs to be addressed. The proposal states, "As enrollments continue to significantly increase, it is important that a cost-effective operating model be in place. To this end, it is recommended that the Board begin a discussion of a different model that would enable the university system, as a whole, to meet the state's full range of needs."

What about the students' full range of needs and interests?

Last year Regent Jack Jewett developed the Changing Directions initiative, in which ASU, NAU and the UA were allowed to differentiate their missions by targeting certain interests instead of being everything to everyone.

This philosophy needs to be carried through into the new proposal for realignment.

Critics of the proposal are rightfully concerned that the regents' proposal to restructure the universities would do nothing more than create a set of mediocre institutions. David Longanecker, the executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education who will lead the study of the proposed realignment, was quick to stress that the proposal is not creating tiers but different types of colleges that emphasize undergraduate education over research.

But the university system will become a tiered structure unless the regents approach the proposal as not only one that will absorb more students, but also one that will begin to offer students more choices. It is easy to compare universities that do not focus their missions and try to excel in certain areas. If there is no "Focused Excellence" at each university, the UA and ASU will sit at the top of the pyramid, with community colleges and regional universities falling behind as the second, mediocre choice in the market of higher education.

To avoid this, all those involved in this process need to consider seriously what student needs and interests are not being served by the current university structure. If established, each university will have the chance to develop its own mission to try to serve the needs that are not being met.

Right now, there really is no choice in Arizona when it comes to choosing a four-year college. All we have are ASU, the UA and NAU, which is pitiful for a state that has one of the fastest growing populations. It is even more pitiful for a state with more than five million people. Arizona should have the ability to serve every student interest. It should be able to offer something to attract every in-state student. Right now, with only three major universities and no four-year private university, Arizona is unable to offer something to everyone.

There is no way the regents can know what higher education lacks in Arizona unless the students tell them. It is one thing for regents to say they want to meet the full range of needs. It's another to know exactly what students' needs and interests are. The board voted to accept ideas from the public until July 1. Don't leave it up to the regents and administrators to try to decipher how the university system is not serving you. Speak up. This is your chance to contribute to one of the biggest changes in higher education in Arizona.

Keren Raz is an English junior. She can be reached at