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Purdue, Indiana regional campuses hope for progress in search for autonomy

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - 7:32 am

What role should regional higher education institutions play in educating Indiana students?

That was the key question a series of legislative committees, which came to a close last week, was designed to examine, after lawmakers’ realizations that student demographics have evolved in such places as Fort Wayne, Kokomo and northwest Indiana along with the higher education model.

The meetings left some hopes dashed — for now — when it comes to yielding more autonomy to Purdue University and Indiana University’s eight regional campuses across the state. Those campuses have ambitions of offering doctoral programs to their increasingly full-time students, among other luxuries reserved to flagship campuses in West Lafayette and Bloomington.

Others said they were encouraged by hints of possible legislative action surrounding regional campuses once Indiana’s General Assembly convenes in January.

“This process has, I believe, spurred action which has been desperately needed by Purdue, by IU” and the Commission for Higher Education, state Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, a proponent of more autonomy for IPFW, said after the final meeting in Fort Wayne. “So I think we saw evidence of that, though I think that process moves far too slowly.”

A recommendation to grant an elevated distinction to IPFW, the fifth-largest public, four-year higher educational institution in the state, failed to gain enough traction on the Regional Campus Study Committee to earn an official recommendation to state legislators.

But it still could be the subject of a bill introduced into the General Assembly once January rolls around.

IPFW “deserves to have more versatility and perhaps a special designation,” Banks said. “It’s my hope we can still do something.”

Proponents say promoting IPFW to a “multisystem comprehensive university” would give it more leeway and funding opportunities, similar to the way Banks and others say IUPUI enjoys a greater level of autonomy. Its classification as a metropolitan university allows it to draw in a significant amount of external research dollars.

“IPFW is really a unique institution,” said Steven Sarratore, associate vice chancellor for academic programs. “That raises some real and exciting opportunities for us but also some administrative challenges as we deal with the complexities of working (as a regional campus). ... It’s not that we are trying to become IUPUI.”

Regional campuses until now haven’t been able to administer doctoral programs.

Due to a change in state policy announced last week by Teresa Lubbers, higher education commissioner, that changed.

A regional campus now may be approved to deliver a professional practice doctoral program collaboratively with a flagship campus if it can prove there is regional workforce demand in a particular field.

“That was a great move forward,” said state Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, who was a committee chairman. “It remains to be seen what happens in the next year or two. If we only have one candidate at one institution participating in a Ph.D. program, then it’s not working.”

Some said the change in state policy doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s so restrictive,” Sarratore said. “We have no desire to move into the ranks of the research institutions, like IUPUI, like Purdue, like Bloomington, but we believe there are a variety of targeted professional doctoral programs that would be useful in this region.”

One of those is a doctor of nursing practice degree, which is allowed under the new commission rules.

One move that left the committee with an official recommendation was a proposal to examine the funding model for the regional campuses, which are funded by the state in part by a performance funding model.

Even though IPFW ranks fifth among Indiana’s public institutions, it ranks 12th this year in the amount it receives from the state per full-time equivalent resident student — $3,975. IU Kokomo, the smallest of the public schools, receives $5,189 from the state per full-time student, according to a survey released by the higher education commission last August.

Banks said IPFW’s rank among the institutions “exposes a glaring disparity in the funding that needs to be fixed.”

Lubbers said reworking of the funding formula is a normal part of the budget discussion.

“I think it does put some added emphasis on looking at how we fund higher education,” Lubbers said. “We would be committed to doing that anyway.”

Purdue University’s Audeen Fentiman, associate dean of engineering for graduate education and interdisciplinary programs, said Purdue’s plan for its regional campuses includes creating a steady stream of easily transferable online courses and offering new graduate professional degree programs.

Kruse said he looks forward to seeing that come to life.

“It’s a little step toward more autonomy,” Kruse said. “If they don’t implement that plan, then I think we have to have more discussions.”

After the end of the study committee, Kruse said he was hopeful about relations among Purdue, IU and the regional campuses moving forward.

“We got the attention of the two main universities,” Kruse said, “and hopefully they will proceed ahead with meaningful changes (regarding) the regional campuses.”