Saying a radical restructuring is needed, a legislative panel approved a plan Wednesday to have each state university run by its own governing board.
The proposal by Sen. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, would scrap the Board of Regents. Instead, the governor would name panels to set the policies for each of the three schools.
In fact, there would be four: SB 1115 would spin off what is now known as ASU Polytechnic into its own freestanding university, with its own direction.
But a change in structure is just part of the program.
It also would eliminate the current system of providing a set amount of aid for each university. Instead, the state would give a voucher to each student that the school, in essence, would trade in to the treasury for state aid.
Get more students, you get more money.
And schools that want more would have to meet certain performance standards, such as the number of students who actually get a degree in four years. Any money the schools want beyond that would come, as it does now, from the students.
The way Biggs sees it, the current system doesn't work. He said what's needed is an incentive for true diversity and competition, incentives he said have been lacking.
Regents President Tom Anderes conceded that may have been the case. But he insisted that is all in the past, with the university presidents now working on "a new approach for the delivery of higher education" in the state.
"(The plan recognizes the differences in university missions," he told Biggs and other members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said the issues that Biggs mentioned are "history" and that the regents are "looking at things very differently."
He promised a system "built on metrics," with measurable standards and funding tied to performance. And Anderes said that the regents foresee creating a system with various ways of addressing the particular needs and priorities of individual communities and groups.
"But we're also looking at the strength of being able to work together," he said. "There is value in being able to do things cooperatively."
Biggs was not impressed.
"I appreciate that you're trying to move in exactly the direction that I'm moving, which is new matrices, new benchmarks, new directions for these universities, less stumbling block and more facilitation," he told Anderes.
But Biggs said what's needed is a structural change to the system, including its funding, to truly make the schools more responsive.
Other legislators shared his belief that a new model for higher education is needed.
Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, said he wants to look at the system in Utah. While he said there is a state governing board, each university there also has its own board, which does things like setting tuition above the state minimum.
"And they get to choose to have their own mission," he said.
For example, Crandall said, Southern Utah University strives to be a liberal arts school, with higher tuition.
"Utah Valley University wants to be the most affordable four-year school in America," he continued. "And right now, they're accomplishing that," though Crandall called that "a very hard-to-duplicate model, so I'm not pushing that."
He said the University of Utah wants to be a Tier One research school, with Utah State focusing on engineering and education.
"Every one of them has been allowed to have the freedom of flexibility without answering to just one board," Crandall said.
And he, like Biggs, said he was not content to sit back and wait for the regents to deliver on the promise of something different.
"A lot of us are kind of just tired of waiting for something big and bold," Crandall said.
The change is not favored by the Arizona Students Association. Lobbyist David Martinez III said the proposal does not require that a student be a voting member of each university's governing board. Now there is a voting student on the Board of Regents.
But Martinez said his group also questions whether the voucher system will ensure adequate funding for the schools.
Notably absent from the hearing - and from taking a position on possible new freedoms - were the university presidents. That is not by accident: Spokesmen for Michael Crow at Arizona State University and John Haeger at Northern Arizona University both said the official position of their bosses is that of the Board of Regents.
Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe, said he's not convinced that having four separate systems is in the best interests of taxpayers. In fact, he noted, lawmakers are pushing for consolidation of the more than 200 individual public school districts in the state under the banner of saving money through less duplication.
But Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, supported the plan.
"I think there's a lot of room for improvement in our higher education system," he said.