Building a new university system the size of the State University of New York or the state system of higher education in California would be a major undertaking for any state these days. The political and economic discussions alone would probably drag on for years, and the end creation would probably look like an institution out of the past, not a university for the 21st century.
When 10 members of the Western Governors' Association signed on to the implementation plan for a new "on-line university," they took a step jointly that none of the states could have taken alone. Although last year the project was dubbed the Western Virtual University, at this year's meeting in Omaha in June a new name - Western Governors University - was chosen, and a work plan devised by 50 members of a regional advisory group representing 13 states was presented.(1) The result was a virtual university designed for two main purposes:
* to broaden access to higher education by fostering the use of advanced technology for the delivery of educational services and
* to provide mechanisms for the formal recognition or certification of learning achieved, regardless of the source.
Building on these purposes, 11 design criteria were identified to ensure that the new university would be a market-oriented, independent, client-centered, degree-granting, accredited, competency-based, nonteaching, high-quality, cost-effective, regional, and quickly initiated institution. At the Omaha meeting, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming signed the agreement to move ahead with the implementation plan. (More states are expected to join in the near future.) Initially, each of the states will contribute $100,000 to continue planning, with the full start-up costs pegged at $6 million to $10 million.
Many states in the West are facing population increases along with increasing demands from high-tech employers for trained employees. The existing structure and current resources of higher education will find these new demands difficult to meet.
Gov. Michael Leavitt of Utah and Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado were leaders in pushing for the virtual university. At the signing meeting, Gov. Leavitt said that this is not a replacement for the existing system of higher education. Gov. Romer called the new university a supplement, a way of creating new choices and opportunities. Both governors stressed the need to use technology to fill the gap between existing systems and the job needs of adult students in a rapidly changing workplace.
Still on the drawing board is a central entity that will have the responsibility for governance, policy decisions, the maintenance of assets, and making provisions for quality control. Each participating state would have local university centers that would act as franchises of the central entity. These centers would provide points of access for individuals and could be housed in public libraries, county extension offices, high schools, higher education institutions, or local businesses. …