Navigating Shared Authority and Centralized Support in Higher Education

April 12, 2024


The landscape of higher education traditionally balances power and responsibility among university systems, individual campuses, faculty, and their deans. A delicate equilibrium has evolved over time, adapting to the changing needs and challenges faced by educational institutions. 

In this paper we suggest how the current higher education landscape will require further refinement of competing interests. In addition to well documented demographic shifts, two important trends require more disciplined strategy, policy, and operations. The first is the rapid rise of lifelong learning and non-degree credentials. The second is the shift to online study—the overwhelming majority of  lifelong learners, plus 71 percent of graduate and 67 percent of undergraduate students, now study partially or exclusively online.

This paper provides a quick overview of traditional governance and organizational choices made in higher education, examines the impact of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and the digital marketing environment, and proposes the questions that might lead to a model for resolving the inherent tensions in this system.

Online vs. Agile

One bit of context: most US universities still separate their online and on-campus programs. This is starting to change, as have organizations in every other sector. We refer to the new approach as agile—it’s less about hybrid programs than about enabling academic strategy through academic support and student services. These services are designed to support students responsively, efficiently, and resiliently. The mission of the central team, therefore, should be to coordinate design, marketing, recruiting, and support services across modalities and to help the institution select, engage, manage, and evaluate a network of partnerships.

This is especially important given the rising expense of those services. Barely 5 percent of the budget in 2000, student services and academic support now account for almost 20 percent of the budget at US universities. 

Shared Governance

Generally, pedagogy, curriculum development, and faculty hiring have been governed by the faculty, deans, and provosts. Logistical and operational areas like finance, infrastructure, and human resources have been the purview of administration. 

With some notable exceptions, the trend for the past several decades has been towards public systems granting more autonomy to individual campuses, and consequently both public and private universities and colleges granting more authority to their schools, empowering deans and faculty with the responsibility to manage programs. The challenge has been to share governance effectively, creating the efficiency and control of centralized support with decentralized academic control.

The Impact of Technology & Marketing on Governance 

Several technologies blur the line between the academic and operational support at a university; in doing so, it puts pressure on the shared governance model. Some examples of this include:

  • Data models that can predict when students struggle or thrive are powered by larger datasets, which means giving real-time data to a central group about the work happening in each classroom.
  • Online courses require excellent learning design of the asynchronous parts of each course. The organizations that do this work need to be of a certain scale to achieve desired quality and efficiency. 
  • AI is quickly becoming integral to the academic experience, from research to teaching methodologies to student services and support. Tuning those AIs to be academically useful—in both instruction and assessment—will put technologists in the middle of the student-professor dynamic.
  • Online learning has allowed some universities to expand quickly. This increased capacity has led to increases in expenses related to digital marketing and student recruitment that requires deep expertise. But a centralized approach makes the system an important part of student selection, even if the final decision is being made by each department. 
  • Systems do not have infinite funds for marketing and need to understand and navigate market size and competitive positions. This is a complex calculus, which must account for degree and lifelong learning programs, learners’ lifetime engagement with the institution, and faculty engagement, among other considerations. Note that the decision to invest in marketing some programs over others will give central administrations a lever that will fuel faculty concerns.  

Lots of Stress; Not Much Success

In the quest to manage the disruptions described above, universities and university systems have experimented with various governance models. However, none have proven entirely successful, each presenting unique challenges and limitations. Some drive experimentation; others drive pathways to scaling solutions that work. Some do neither and a handful have done both.

  • Decentralized Models: This approach, in which each school is left to manage its online programs independently, has generally led to a lack of coherence and synergy across the university. The inherent challenges are masked when the institution is operating at a small scale but quickly become profound as an institution graduates from a collection of pilots to a period of intentional growth. Schools have struggled with limited resources, inconsistent quality standards, and an inability to leverage technology or economies of scale; it has been successful in the short term when schools have worked with OPMs, but at the cost of control, flexibility, and millions of dollars that could have been reinvested in mission-aligned activities.
  • Centralized Models: In contrast, some systems have attempted a highly centralized approach. This has normally generated substantial antipathy from the schools, especially in cases where university taxes have been high and the value proposition has not been communicated effectively. From our point of view, the stress between a central office and each school is surprisingly difficult given significant overlapping interests.

    Some universities have taken this approach to an extreme, segregating online education into completely separate campuses. This model has left the legacy universities with a huge problem while creating new programs with far less accomplished faculties and traditions.
  • School of Continuing Studies as the Hub: Many universities have looked to their school of continuing studies to be that centralized group building and marketing their centralized online and agile efforts; they believe that these schools are relatively familiar with technology and marketing of online programs. This has not yet been successful in absorbing growth of online and hybrid programs and a widening range of non-degree credentials. These schools’ experience is with a specific student body, and traditional academic deans have not always trusted their ability to fully represent their interests or core academic strategic objectives.

Each of these models, while attempting to address the challenges of governing online and agile programs, falls short in creating a harmonious and effective system. This reflects the complexity of the task at hand—balancing the need for centralized coordination and support with the value of decentralized academic freedom and innovation.

Building a Framework for Central Support with Delegated Academic Control

All of this gives tremendous power to universities with strong central control. A new structure should allow a system or university to compete effectively despite having a shared governance system; and restore the balance between the participants while keeping campus politics to its traditional level. Crafting that solution starts with questions:

1. What is the university’s appetite for scale? Over the next five years, how much does each school want to grow its degree and non-degree enrollment? Are online offerings managed separately or integrated with the traditionally residential program mix? Does the financial structure of the university encourage or discourage schools to grow? 

2. What is the university’s financial model, and does its model line up with its growth and modality goals? It’s our experience that schools operating under a modified Responsibility Centered Management (RCM) model have out-innovated and outgrown those under a more centralized model.

3. How integrated should the online effort be? Some universities see online learning as a chance to serve an international audience with degree programs that are asynchronous, very inexpensive, and non-selective. Some see it as an evolution of their on-campus programs, which requires a level of integration and flexibility. Does the institution have objectives for online and hybrid programs? If so, are they leveraged consistently? 

4. What is the nature of the support center, and to whom should it report? Should there be multiple support structures, each with a single mission (e.g., marketing and recruiting, financial aid, student support, and career counseling) or a single entity, which might report to the provost? Which capabilities and services should remain distributed at the academic unit level?

5. If the institution has a school of continuing studies, how should it align or connect to a support structure that enables mission-aligned growth across the institution? Are there parts of the school of continuing studies that might be spun out to the new structure, whose first client is that school?

6. How should a central student support team interact with existing student services? One approach would be to have a centralized 24/7 tier one support team, coordinating and tracking the individual support centers (e.g., financial aid, advisement, counseling, and placement). But while this approach has logistical and cost advantages, it might prove practically or politically impossible.

7. What technology infrastructure would best support an agile approach? Given the pace of technological change, this is a moving target, but it’s certain that no one university or system, much less an individual school, needs to build this for itself.

The approach must be flexible enough to accommodate the unique needs and politics of different campuses and departments, while ensuring alignment with the broader goals of the university system. No school should be forced to work with the central team, for example. That said, however, outside vendors should share data, including financial data, with the central system; this can no longer be a negotiation point in forming external contracts. A standard provision must center on comprehensive data sharing with institutions.

Models have evolved considerably in the last decade. It has been our experience that a campus central team can be advantaged by having an outside partner or partners to build technology and find network effects and economies of scale. This may involve collaboration with other universities as well. That partner network should also be able to provide marketing, recruiting, and learning design services when it makes sense (e.g., during peak periods or off-hours, or on a fractional basis for cost-efficiency). Ten years ago, universities engaged these partners to acquire know-how in addition to capacity; today, many institutions have significant strength here and prioritize partners that can extend their bandwidth to improve the student experience and support structure. 

Autonomy & Standards

It’s important to point out that the central team would not dictate academic policies other than through shared governance principles. Central teams should support campuses and departments in implementing their educational strategies. Individual campuses, guided by their deans and faculty, would retain control over academic issues, including curriculum development and research focus.

Similarly, individual schools should not feel coerced into working with the central team. Whether competing with their own marketing efforts or learning designers, or those of outside vendors, the central team should generate allegiance through its excellence,  innovation, and efficiency. 

That said, the system or university itself may want to set minimum standards that allow it to promote and support all programs. For degree programs, these might include the need for synchronous instruction, section size, involvement of faculty, student service standards, and the quality of learning design for asynchronous materials, as measured by Quality Matters or some other rubric.


If any sort of central approach makes sense, funding is another area where things can go off the rails. 

To allow departments to move to an agile approach, tuition revenue must be handled consistently with tuition from on-campus programs. In the case of degree programs, this means that central services must be paid by some combination of university taxes and a fee for specific services. For lifelong learning, it might mean that revenue is collected by the central group, with a portion paid to the professor and their school. 

For instances where revenue is collected by each school, the funding structure should encourage innovation and the desired growth of more agile programs. The most successful models we’ve seen align to governance norms:

  • The center provides a strategy and technology support infrastructure, paid for by university taxes.
  • It sets a budget to subsidize learning design for some number of core programs. All other learning design is paid for by the relevant department, or paid centrally with reimbursement through a small tax on tuition.
  • Marketing and recruiting are expensive, and no central group can afford to do this at scale without reimbursement. When it acquires a prospect, or handles recruiting for a prospect, the group charges a fee for reimbursement. If a school acquires a student on its own (other than simply being listed on the university’s website and benefiting from the reputation of the school), it might pay a smaller fee, or nothing.

Where the central group administers the offerings (e.g., schools of continuing ed), all tech, marketing, and support costs are borne by that central group. It distributes a revenue share to faculties and schools, the amount of which varies wildly from university to university based on, among other things, the tuition charged and the modality of the programs—more expensive programs, especially those involving synchronous instruction, correlate to substantially higher revenue shares.


The evolving landscape of higher education and the expanding role of technology requires a nuanced approach to governance, balancing centralized support with decentralized academic control. Through the right questions and a design that respects and upholds the autonomy of campuses and departments in academic matters, systems and universities can effectively navigate the challenges posed by technological advancements and changing marketing strategies, ensuring a robust and adaptable higher education system.

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