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Petro unveils new proposal for higher education

By admin Published: August 11, 2011

The University of Akron and Kent State could set different tuition levels for different programs and possibly make purchases of up to $1 million without seeking bids in a new plan to be unveiled today by Jim Petro, chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents.

He will introduce a framework to reshape the 14 tax-supported universities in Ohio at the annual statewide conference for university trustees at Ohio State.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the state’s budget crunch this spring, Petro said he will not recommend that Ohio reduce the state share of instruction — or SSI — any further to universities.

However, he would require institutions to salt an unspecified amount of their subsidy into a scholarship program that he calls the Preeminent Scholars Award Foundation to keep the best and brightest students in state.

“The whole idea is that the state continues to provide the SSI and the universities invest a portion of it,” Petro said. “It has never been my objective to further reduce the amount of money from the state to the universities.”

His plan would give all universities some immediate relief from “burdensome, duplicative and outdated mandates and regulations,” according to the proposal posted late Wednesday on the Regents’ website.

For example, universities could set different tuition rates for programs based on space and utility reasons and would seek requests for proposals — or RFPs — only for purchases of $250,000 or more. Currently the limit is $49,000.

The state would set nine benchmarks to grade universities that include graduating 75 percent of students in five years and retaining 85 percent of students between their first and second years.

Universities that do not meet at least seven of the benchmarks could enter into an agreement with the state to “develop aspirational objectives” that “will be designed to fit the university’s unique mission,” according to the proposal.

They would receive more “mandate relief” that would include increasing bid limits from $49,000 to $500,000 and charging different tuition levels based on the cost of the academic program.

Institutions that can meet at least seven of the benchmarks would become “international enterprise universities” and would receive the highest level of autonomy.

They could increase bid limits to $1 million and could settle claims up to $300,000 without approval of the attorney general’s office.

The proposal calls for “examining” state laws in public works, purchasing, public improvements and more but does not indicate what the relief in those areas might be.

A spokeswoman said Luis Proenza, president of the University of Akron, was not available to comment on the proposal. A spokeswoman at Kent State said it was too soon for President Lester Lefton to comment.

But the proposal received cautious approval from Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University who heads the nonprofit Center for College Affordability and Productivity and has been a ready critic of higher education in Ohio.

“This is trying to make the best of a bad situation,” he said.

However, Sara Kilpatrick, executive director of the Ohio Conference of the AAUP, called the proposal “a semi-privatization of public assets.”

She said the chancellor’s office was only required to consult with university presidents in developing the plan, leaving employees and faculty — the people who would do the work — out of the loop.

She also worried that university officials would be less transparent with public records and more cavalier with the rights of employees.

The AAUP already is embroiled in a statewide fight over a law approved by the General Assembly this spring that would curtail organized labor on campuses and among other public employees. A referendum on the issue will be on the ballot in November.

The General Assembly required Petro to develop a plan for enterprise universities by Aug. 15 in its two-year budget this spring.

With legislative approval, enterprise universities would be effective with the start of the next academic year in July.

Petro cautioned that the proposal has a long way to go before it becomes law.

“This is not etched in stone,” he said Wednesday.

Carol Biliczky can be reached at cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3729.

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