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Going It Alone: A Case Study of Institutional Autonomy and Public Higher Education in Virginia Open Access

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Going It Alone:A Case Study of Institutional Autonomy and Public Higher Education in VirginiaThe scholarship on accountability and governance reform in higher education tends to focus on understanding the policy process that resulted in change, rather than the policy and its impact on higher education institutions. This qualitative case study attempted to fill in this research gap by examining the influences the 2005 Virginia Restructured Higher Education Financial & Administrative Operations Act had on the College of William and Mary, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The findings confirm institutions used autonomies gained from restructuring to make significant changes to their administrative and financial environments, which have led them to be more cost effective and efficient institutions. These changes included altering campus culture in terms of physical space, modifying administrative processes, implementing human resource management systems, streamlining strategic and financial planning, and raising overall transparency in campus decision-making. Senior administrators at all four Level III institutions confirmed restructuring’s authorities encouraged them to forge new partnerships with their communities and embrace innovation as a core operating principle. For example, senior administrators of all four institutions repeatedly stressed how beneficial the flexibilities gained from the legislation around capital projects were for their institutions, particularly because of the significant cost and time savings in avoiding perceived bureaucratic barriers. One of the lasting effects of the restructuring legislation, from the vantage point of three of the four institutions, was the ability to create their own human resources system. The establishment of these systems has positioned institutions to be more competitive in retaining and recruiting faculty and staff. Level III senior administrators interviewed recommend other states looking to reform higher education consider Virginia’s Restructuring legislation as a model to provide a framework for improving long-term planning through increased local, financial, and operational autonomy.

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