02/05/2013 12:32 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

Who's Responsible for Public Higher Education?

Years ago I rented an apartment with three other young women. We agreed vaguely that we'd all pitch in to do dishes and clean up the place. The vague agreement didn't work out. The place was a mess until we actually developed a list of individual responsibilities.

Somehow this reminds me of the current environment for public higher education.

For many years, states supported their public universities. Costs were low; the quality of education was high. Many thousands of college graduates fueled economic development and civic engagement across the country.

In the old model, responsibilities were clearly demarcated. States were benign providers. They allocated financial support for public universities. Regional accrediting bodies and governing boards ensured that academic quality remained strong. University personnel created programs tailored to their student populations. State universities served huge numbers of students with significant success.

In California, for instance, the master plan for higher education created a funding model that ensured a top quality, low cost education for thousands of students in the University of California and the California State University systems. Community colleges were free. Other states developed similar plans.

Now the model has changed. States are stretched thin. Many states are no longer the major funders for their state universities. Yet, even as states are disinvesting in public institutions, state mandates are becoming more aggressive, and voices calling for institutions to change are becoming more discordant and contradictory.

Some voices call for private industry to support higher education. Some assert that online classes should take the place of residential universities. Yet others demand that students pay in full for what is essentially a personal benefit. Voices in both state and federal government assert the overwhelming demand for purely vocational training, proclaiming that majors such as sociology and English are no longer needed.

I fully support statewide benchmarks and goals. My institution and other public universities routinely set goals that include graduating more students in a shorter time frame, creating a more diverse student body, demonstrating learning outcomes, creating stronger connections with K-12 and the private sector, using technology more effectively, keeping costs down, and serving the needs of local employers. We've been amazingly successful despite severely diminished state funding.

Across the country, however, there's a lot of a lot of shouting about higher ed. Everyone suddenly seems to have a passionate opinion about the programs, modes of delivery, cost structures, and goals of public universities. We've lost the fundamental understanding of shared mission and shared responsibility that characterized higher education in the 20th century.

In this noisy, dissonant environment, there's still good thinking going on. Oregon is concerned about public education. I'm hopeful that, in this state, a long-term vision and a reality-based plan for our public universities will emerge ― along with mutual understanding of appropriate responsibilities and accountability.

At Southern Oregon University, faculty, students, staff, and community leaders are working to ensure that the institution continues to serve students successfully in this time of upheaval. In order to thrive, we must actively and thoughtfully embrace change.

Educating our citizens is vital for our country. Informed, thoughtful, creative people must be willing to construct a new model for public higher education, a model that works in the uncertain and complex environment of the 21st century.

I remain hopeful. But meanwhile the shouting needs to subside. And someone needs to wash the dishes.