The Spider Web of Oversight: An Analysis of External Oversight of Higher Education

By Lane, Jason E. | Journal of Higher Education, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Spider Web of Oversight: An Analysis of External Oversight of Higher Education


Lane, Jason E., Journal of Higher Education


The relationship between state governments and public institutions of higher learning resembles an intricate and clumsy dance with both partners often trying to play the role of the lead dancer. Further complicating the issue, higher education often awkwardly vies for attention among the state's multiple partners (e.g., health care, prisons, and transportation); however, because of a variety of shifts in the nature of state legislatures, increasing public interest in higher education, and billions of dollars in state appropriations (approximately $72 billion for the 2006-2007 fiscal year), the dance between higher education and the state legislature is becoming increasingly important. Through professionalization of state legislatures (Bowman & Kearney, 1988) and increasing demands on limited fiscal resources, legislatures and other government officials across the nation are taking a more active role in calling for heightened levels of accountability for all institutions receiving state appropriations, including higher education (Burke, 2005; Sabloff, 1997; Schmidtlein & Berdahl, 2005). (1)

As with any effective dance pair, information flow between the partners is critical. However, empirical scholarship about how state governments elicit and receive information about public colleges and universities remains limited. Interpreting this relationship through the lens of the theoretical framework of the principal-agent theory leads to the conclusion that the university operates as an agent of the state government (the principal). However, the relationship is awash with information asymmetries, leading the principal to have to rely on a complex array of oversight mechanisms and other actors to reduce some of these asymmetries. This study investigates how actors and mechanisms at the local and state levels aid the state government in compensating for the inherent information asymmetries in the system.

Over the past several decades, state officials and various interest groups and civic organizations have increased their level of direct involvement in the affairs of public higher education. The increase in external attention toward the academy would likely be accompanied by the development of oversight mechanisms to ensure that societal expectations are fulfilled; yet there is little empirical evidence of how these external actors and oversight mechanisms interact to oversee the action of the university. For example, how does oversight by localized actors such as students or local citizens lead to the involvement of state officials? Merely acknowledging that the university might have to testify at a legislative hearing or file a report does not fully explain how oversight of higher education operates. In fact, many of the often-unobserved processes might be the ones that most frequently trigger governmental interventions (McCubbins & Schwartz, 1984).

A primary difficulty in the study of higher education governance is that the public university is a blend of organizational components from private corporations, public bureaucracies, and nonprofit organizations. What is needed is a theory of university oversight that incorporates the relevant aspects of each of these areas to help explain actor behavior and structural dynamics. Such a development of a theory about the oversight of higher education is not a simple feat of borrowing theories from relevant fields and applying them to higher education. Simply merging theories is unfeasible because organizational theories about corporations, public bureaucracies, and nonprofit organizations all operate under certain assumptions--some of which might apply to the public university and some which might not. Thus, developing a theory of higher education governance requires explorative research about university governance and external oversight. Several studies have explored various aspects of external oversight, but there exists little knowledge about the full scope of oversight, particularly from exploratory research only possible through qualitative research. …

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