IBHE tables focus statement motion

By Peter Schuh

The Illinois Board of Higher Education has hit a new bump in their initiative to streamline Illinois higher education system.

Last week, distention among the ranks of the board forced IBHE Chair Arthur Quern to recommend tabling a motion to implement focus and priority statements for Illinois public universities.

The controversy over focus statements was spurred by the concerns of several university presidents, including NIU President John La Tourette. The universities said they weren’t consulted in the formation of the statements and that the statements themselves did not accurately reflect the universities’ mission.

Several board members said the whole process was a waste of time. Board opposition was headed by IBHE member J. Robert Barr, who described the proposed focus statements as “a bunch of boloney.”

This type of disagreement is very unusual for a board that was criticized for not speaking up last year when the IBHE pushed its Priorities, Quality and Productivity initiative into motion with the recommendation to cut 190 academic programs state wide.

“I think most of the people who have been observers of the board have sensed it to be a little out of the ordinary,” said NIU Provost J. Carroll Moody. “One of the surprising things to me is how little comment there has been during the IBHE meetings about PQP and the plans for PQP from the board members.”

James Norris, dean of NIU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences said he had “a lot of respect” for the board members who spoke out against the proposal.

“I’ve been here (at NIU) for 15 years and I haven’t ever seen anything like that come out of the IBHE,” he said. “I think this shows that the board members are facing up to the fact that the IBHE staff is only demoralizing the universities with the PQP process.”

The focus statements could replace the universities’ mission statements in the eyes of the IBHE, if the matter is approved. While mission statements would still be considered the sole property of the universities to create and implement, the IBHE would refer to focus statements when reviewing, approving and making recommendations on university programs under the proposal.

According to Katherine Kelly, IBHE deputy director for academic affairs, “(Mission statements) are sort of saying they are the hopes and dreams of the university, but (the focus statements) are what the IBHE sees as their priorities.

“The focus statements will be reviewed every three to five years by the IBHE with consultation from the universities,” Kelly added.

The priority statements are to be drawn up solely by the universities on an annual basis.

“They would be included with a set of things which would be included in the universities’ productivity reports,” Kelly said.

The board tabled the motion in order to allow the universities another chance to consult with the IBHE on their focus statements.

“There are some institutional people who believe the statements are too limiting,” Kelly said. “There are others who believe they are not specific enough. The board and the staff are trying to find the middle point of that.

“I think the focus statements certainly can be improved and we will bring them back improved in January,” she added. “Over time I think we’ll improve at this process.”

According to Moody, “NIU has not yet been contacted by the IBHE to consult on its focus statement.”