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Senate to take up bill to cut USNH chancellor

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2010, file photo, University System Chancellor Edward MacKay testifies during budget hearings for more money for the university system in Concord, N.H. Now MacKay's future is uncertain as the Senate is to vote next week on whether
FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2010, file photo, University System Chancellor Edward MacKay testifies during budget hearings for more money for the university system in Concord, N.H. Now MacKay's future is uncertain as the Senate is to vote next week on whether to eliminate the chancellor's office for University System of New Hampshire.
Jim Cole, File, Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — Where Ed MacKay sees benefits, Robbie Parsons sees bloat. Anything the University System of New Hampshire chancellor points to as efficient is quickly deemed excessive by the lawmaker.

The tug-of-war playing out at the Statehouse highlights both the national trend of declining state funding for higher education and the newly strained relationship between the New Hampshire Legislature and the state's public university system, which includes the University of New Hampshire, Plymouth State University, Keene State College and Granite State College.

Parsons, a Republican representative from Milton, is the sponsor of a bill that would eliminate MacKay's office and transfer the chancellor's duties to the volunteer chairman of the system's board of trustees. The bill also would reduce the size of the board from 27 to 21 and prohibit it from hiring more than 12 central administrative staff. The chancellor's office has 71 employees, 25 percent fewer than it had when MacKay took office in 2009.

But Parsons argues the chancellor's office hasn't shouldered its fair share of the burden since the Legislature cut state funding to the university system by 48 percent.

"We cut (the system's) budget, and the chancellor's office didn't cut theirs," he said. "The chancellor's office uses an awful lot of money that could go toward defraying the cost of tuition at our four colleges and universities."

Nearly every state reduced state funding for higher education last year, but New Hampshire's decline was the steepest, according to the annual Grapevine study by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, which found overall spending declined nearly 8 percent nationwide. The study also ranked New Hampshire last in state support for higher education per capita and per $1,000 of personal income.

Against that backdrop, Parson's bill came as a surprise, according to MacKay, who said his office and the board of trustees led the effort to offset more than 80 percent of the cuts with spending reductions.

"One would think there would be an acknowledgement of that tremendous effort to mitigate the impact on students," he said.

The chancellor's office was created in 1963 to provide a well-coordinated system of public higher education. For example, one of the office's responsibilities has been to track the state's workforce needs, and it has worked with the community college system to make it easier for students to transfer to the four-year campuses. The office also has partnered with the state on a program to get more money for the construction of science, technology and math buildings, resulting in a 50 percent increase in graduates in those areas in the past decade, he said.

"That's the type of coordination that would not necessarily exist without the presence of a system office to drive that process," he said. "I believe most residents of the state would look at the evolution of our four institutions as extraordinary. They're really what I would call four first-choice institutions and provide a place within the university system for any New Hampshire citizen to earn a four-year degree, regardless of their physical location or level of income."

MacKay and top officials at the four colleges and universities also reject Parson's claim that eliminating the chancellor's office would save money. While the budget for the system office is $11.2 million, they argue it would cost more to have each campus assume duties now handled by the central office. Its responsibilities include so-called "back office" operations, such as overseeing benefits, payroll and debt management — functions MacKay said are performed more efficiently by a centralized office.

Just because the individual campuses have employees with job titles similar to those at the system office doesn't mean they are doing the same jobs, MacKay said.

"The heck they're not," answers Parsons.

The amount spent on administrative overhead at USNH was about 5.9 percent last year, MacKay said, lower than comparable systems in other New England states. But Parsons said that is no reason to keep the USNH system in place.

"That only shows how ineffective and inefficient and costly those other systems are," he said.

Because there is so much variation in how states structure and pay for higher education, it's unclear whether other states have also tried to eliminate their chancellor's offices. In Georgia, the chancellor is consolidating several campuses to save money, but no movement toward getting rid of the university system office altogether. And Ohio's governor has turned over a host of duties typically handled by the chancellor to the president of Ohio State University, the largest university in the state.

At the American Council on Education, senior vice president Gretchen Bataille said she isn't surprised by the New Hampshire bill given that legislatures, colleges and universities across the country all are trying to do more with less, or at least maintain with less. She wasn't aware of other states looking to abolish their main governance structure, but changes aimed at saving money and boosting efficiency have become common.

There are always unintended consequences," she said. "It may appear to be a good idea to some folks but the results may not be better education, or may not be more efficient."

The bill has passed the House and is scheduled for a Senate vote Wednesday. The Senate Finance Committee is recommending that instead of eliminating the chancellor's office, the state require it to submit annual accountability and transparency reports.