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Higher Education Systems 3.0: Harnessing Systemness, Delivering Performance

reviewed by Renata Opoczynski & Brendan Cantwell - August 15, 2015

coverTitle: Higher Education Systems 3.0: Harnessing Systemness, Delivering Performance
Author(s): Jason E. Lane & D. Bruce Johnstone (Eds.)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 143844978X, Pages: 336, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

The aim of Jason E. Lane and D. Bruce Johnstone’s book, Higher Education Systems 3.0 is to advance knowledge about higher education systems and to demonstrate how they can add value to their state and institutions. As Lane elaborates, the study of higher education systems has been “sparse and sporadic” (p. 11). With this book, the editors and authors add to the discussion on systems, and analyze the role systems can play in the future of higher education.

As the authors note, at the time of printing, 51 multi-campus systems existed within 38 states and served over six million students, which accounted for more than 40% of all students at public higher education institutions in the United States (p. 8). Because state systems have such a prominent role in the United States’ higher education landscape, this topic is relevant to higher education researchers and policymakers, and the book includes chapters by well-regarded researchers and administrators. Several of the authors (listed below) have experience working in higher education systems as board members, presidents, system chancellors, and university administrators.

Others have worked for state policy organizations such as the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) or the National Association of System Heads (NASH). Together, they bring many years of experience working with and for higher education, and this experience is reflected in the content of the chapters. Higher Education Systems 3.0 is organized into three sections. The first section (Chapters One through Three) introduces the idea of systems and traces the history of their establishment and traditional functions. Jason E. Lane opens the book in Chapter One by discussing the importance of higher education systems and presents a succinct review of current research and literature on the topic.

In Chapter Two, Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY), defines “system-ness” as “the ability of a system to coordinate the activities of its constituent campuses so that, on the whole, the system behaves in a way that is more powerful and impactful than what can be achieved by individual campuses acting alone.” (p. 27). This definition helps frame the rest of the book with later chapters elaborating how systems create positive impact for the state and allow states to achieve results from higher education that otherwise might not be possible. In Chapter Three, Aims C. McGuinness, Jr. discusses the evolution of systems through the context of political, social, and financial forces from the late 1880s to present day.

The second section (Chapters Four through Nine) examines the tensions at play in system structures. Chapter Four, by D. Bruce Johnstone, outlines eight common tensions related to autonomy that higher education systems face. Based on his experience as a campus president and system chancellor, Johnstone proposes a framework for splitting authority between state governments, institutions, and systems. Chapter Five focuses on the role of systems within the changing financial environment facing higher education. Jane V. Wellman discusses the financial policies and pressures facing higher education and describes how systems have responded to these pressures.

In Chapter Six, Katharine C. Lyall examines new roles for higher education systems within the current political and financial reality, and offers recommendations about how to re-design systems to meet the needs of the 21st Century. In particular, she notes the importance of aligning systems with state needs and priorities. Chapter Seven, by C. Judson King, highlights possible new structures for system governance with a focus on creating more authority for institutions within the system. The chapter also summarizes issues to consider when dividing areas of authority and responsibility between institutions and systems.

In Chapter Eight, Mario Martinez and Brandy Smith situate state systems within a wider higher education eco-system consisting of institutional, system, and state policy layers. The authors identify actors within each level and analyze relationships and lines of authority between the levels. This chapter provides an important context for how higher education systems operate within their policy environment and would have been more helpful if it was earlier in the book. Chapter Nine addresses the economic and political pressures to restructure higher education systems, including the desire to give more autonomy to institutions, both from institutions within the system and state policy makers. To ground this discussion, Aims C. McGuiness Jr. presents two examples from Wisconsin and Oregon and ends with essential actions systems need to take to be effective.

The third section (Chapters Ten through Thirteen) focuses on the future and what systems can do to add value to their states and institutions. Chapter Ten focuses on the changing role of system academic affairs officers. Jan M. Ignash outlines the main responsibilities of system academic affairs officers and describes how these have changed over recent decades. Chapter Eleven discusses how four states (North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Massachusetts) have leveraged their community college system to improve workforce development efforts, and the benefits to the institutions and state that arise from a system approach.  

Throughout the chapter, David F. Shaffer explains the distinctiveness of community college systems and given this, it would have been beneficial for community college systems to be interwoven, throughout the book instead of isolated to one chapter. In Chapter Twelve, Jason E. Lane outlines specific ways in which systems are engaging in internationalizing activities. The chapter further highlights the tensions that arise between the system and institutions within—this time focusing on a topic where the institutions hold greater authority. In Chapter Thirteen, David J Weerts concludes the book by examining how higher education systems may be re-designed to address the needs of their states through an organizational learning perspective.

Higher Education 3.0 is a good introduction for readers interested in better understanding state systems, and adds to the limited literature base on this topic. However, three limitations of the book are worth noting. First, despite identifying in the introduction the many challenges that higher education systems face (e.g. tensions with the “flagship” campus, swirling of students), and specifically outlining some tensions related to autonomy in Chapter Four, these challenges are not discussed in much detail throughout the book, and solutions for the tensions or challenges are not presented. A chapter dedicated to addressing these concerns and what systems could do to overcome these challenges would strengthen the book.

Second, while most chapters are anchored with examples from state systems (and a few chapters go in depth with case studies of higher education systems), the examples used lack diversity with most coming from well-established comprehensive systems, and an overabundance from the SUNY system. While this is not surprising as many of the authors, including both editors, have ties to the SUNY system, the book would benefit from examples across all states with systems including different types of systems and especially more comprehensive attention to community colleges.

The third limitation might be classified as a missed opportunity. Higher Education Systems 3.0 offered the promise of a set of chapters that collectively re-theorizes the relationship between public higher education systems and the states. This potential is previewed in Lane’s introductory chapter, which considers the political history of state systems. While many of the chapters offer both an accurate assessment of the current state of affairs, and reasoned propositions for improving the contributions that higher education systems make to their states, few make significant advances in terms of understanding the fundamental social and political role of public state systems of higher education in the United States.

Despite these limitations, Higher Education Systems 3.0 offers an important contribution to the field of higher education. As numerous chapters note, the political and societal demands constituting the accountability agenda are increasing, and financial pressures are causing higher education funding to decrease. Within this environment, public higher education will need to think strategically and collaboratively, and Higher Education Systems 3.0 outlines good principles for institutions to follow. This book will be of interest to institutional and state system leaders, policy makers, and policy researchers. Graduate students interested in learning more about the history and current status of state systems will probably be the audience that will benefit most from this interesting and important work.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 15, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18067, Date Accessed: 1/29/2022 12:24:37 AM

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About the Author
  • Renata Opoczynski
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    RENATA OPOCZYNSKI is a PhD student in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. Her dissertation research focuses on the effects of performance-based funding policies on the enrollment and persistence of underrepresented students.
  • Brendan Cantwell
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    BRENDAN CANTWELL is an assistant professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) at Michigan State University. His research addresses the political economy of higher education. Dr. Cantwell's recent research has addressed globalization of the academic research enterprise and institutional stratification. He is co-editor (with Ilkka Kauppinen) of Academic Capitalism in the Age of Globalization (The Johns Hopkins University Press).
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