By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press
FRANKFORT, Ky. - Gov. Paul Patton likes to portray the General Assembly debate over higher education reform in 1997 as the defining moment of his administration.
Mr. Patton had chosen to take on the entrenched, parochial interests of the University of Kentucky in what some viewed as a fight to the political death.
Mr. Patton said losing that fight would likely have made him a one-term governor. UK supporters, led by then-president Charles Wethington, said the legislation would eviscerate the school by chopping off its community colleges.
Five years later, UK has blossomed, freed from the provincial yoke of the community colleges, which are now offering education that is easily transferrable.
"Kentucky's progress since the 1997 assessment has been nothing short of remarkable," observed the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a Colorado think tank commissioned by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence to review the overhaul.
Problems remain, most notably the same kind of institutional pursuit of self-interest that has plagued the system for generations.
Mr. Patton noted the stunted view when he issued a challenge to higher education in his first inaugural address: "Show me a system more devoted to innovation than it is to turf, more concerned about the big picture than it is about its own place in that picture."
Turf, though, is still an issue.
The report from the national center noted that some university presidents still think that if they disagree with initiatives or decisions from the Council on Postsecondary Education, they go elsewhere to get what they want.
"They therefore believe that they have a right, if not an obligation to end run' the system," the report said. "In other states, the impact of end runs is clear - they lead to short-term gains but significant long-term losses for the institution and the system as a whole."
In many ways, the 1997 higher education undertaking was more complicated and far-reaching than the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act. KERA was mostly about money. There were also efforts to reduce patronage and nepotism, plus an emphasis on ensuring that academic goals were met, but the restructuring of the way public funds are distributed to school systems was arguably its most significant feature.
Higher education overhaul was also about money, but overlaying it all was an effort to make higher education in Kentucky worthwhile academically.
The study of the reform noted that money remains a significant factor in its continued success, most notably for the postsecondary council to use to encourage colleges and universities to excel in areas that benefit the entire system. As it is, there are few incentives for collaboration in a system that "remains highly competitive," the report said.
"The danger is that temporary setbacks or a failure to demonstrate short-term results will lead to discouragement and cynicism about reform," the report said.
Once again using KERA as an example, the report noted that it took a decade for some progress to be measured in elementary and secondary education.
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