Copyright 1998 EDUCAUSE. From CAUSE/EFFECT Volume 21, Number 2, 1998, pp.32-35. Permission to copy or disseminate all or part of this material is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for commercial advantage, the EDUCAUSE copyright and its date appear, and notice is given that copying is by permission of EDUCAUSE. To disseminate otherwise, or to republish, requires written permission. For further information, contact Jim Roche at EDUCAUSE, 4840 Pearl East Circle, Suite 302E, Boulder, CO 80301 USA; 303-939-0308; e-mail: email@example.com
South Dakota Board of Regents
Serving as a connection between higher education and state government, the South Dakota Board of Regents governs the six institutions that make up the public higher education system in the state. The combined headcount for the institutions--Black Hills State University, Dakota State University, Northern State University, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, South Dakota State University, and the University of South Dakota--is just under 26,000 students.
The board office is located in Pierre, in the center of the state on the Missouri River. The South Dakota Board of Regents is a governing board, which means that it has control over all major systemwide and institutional decisions. The board's operating budget is $306 million, which includes funds for K-12 special schools for the deaf and the blind and visually impaired that the board also oversees.
South Dakota is a rural state that does not tax income and has no major industry. The public higher education system fights to stay out of the lowest ranking nationwide in average faculty salaries, yet faculty teach eight courses a year while maintaining average class sizes. So, though it spans two time zones and as much as 455 miles between campuses, the university system is a unified one, sharing its scarce state resources. The Board of Regents takes a coordinated approach to many of the university functions, from systemwide databases to offering collaborative majors. The board works creatively to get the most out of its funding.
The institutions in the South Dakota Unified System of Public Higher Education have common course numbers, code structures, policies, and procedures. And to function efficiently as a whole, the databases also stretch systemwide. Regents Information Systems (RIS) coordinates systemwide computing resources for the higher education community, including technology implementation and planning for both academic and administrative functions. RIS is located in Vermillion, nearly 300 miles southeast of the Board of Regents office.
By sharing products that are licensed to the Board of Regents, the universities are able to take advantage of many products that they wouldn't be able to purchase individually.
After an analysis in 1994 identified a number of inadequacies with the system's student information database, officials decided to replace it. The new student information system (SIS), which is in the final stages of implementation, addresses problems associated with the year 2000 and provides increased accessibility, among other improvements. Datatel, the SIS vendor, was chosen partly for its record of customer support, a service the South Dakota system couldn't address with its small staff. But Bob Burke, SIS project director for the Board of Regents, explained that while Datatel had worked with systems before, the South Dakota system presented new challenges: "I think we offer some uniquenesses because in some ways we have very separate campus missions and at the same time we have a very central system mission." The South Dakota system needed to be able to work with data in both contexts.
Standardization is an important issue, as the board staff is often called upon to provide data and information to state legislators. Director of Regents Information Systems Warren Wilson explained, "Policy makers look to the board or the board office for answers to a lot more questions because we have the voice for all the institutions." Data are requested often and for any number of details, such as faculty qualifications or the number of students majoring in a certain field. Paul Gough, director of policy and planning, says that such demands are high in South Dakota. "I think there's probably more pressure here than in other states because others might have a stronger and larger legislative staff which could do its own digging," he said, noting that South Dakota also has a very short legislative session, which puts a time crunch on information requests.
Director of Information and Institutional Research Carol Stonefield explains that part of serving the state means accounting for what's going on in higher education. "System information gives us the opportunity to respond quickly and accurately, to use our resources wisely and efficiently, and to increase our accountability," she said. But while it's important for each of the campuses to standardize their information, it's just as important for the databases to provide adaptability in reporting, as the board staff can't count on standard questions from legislators or from the board. "We need the flexibility to answer questions we haven't yet thought about," said Gough.
While the institutional system has created economies of scale by standardizing and sharing systems, the Board of Regents has also juggled dollars, and even majors, to fund critical projects. One such program, Reinvestment Through Efficiencies, has been in essence a 10 percent redirection of the system's resource base. With the funds that have been captured, the system has been able to implement projects such as the new student information system. A big contributor to the captured funds was a reworking of the processing functions for admissions and financial aid, and the elimination of more than fifty positions throughout the system. A consolidated Enrollment Services Center, which operates with ten employees, was created for all six universities.
Low-enrollment courses were also examined as part of the reinvestment project, which is in its third year. Courses were filtered out based on class size, and 159 programs were eliminated throughout the system. But, said Executive Director Robert T. Tad Perry, "You have to be careful, because you want a quality educational experience that gives people choice." So last year the system adopted a new tactic: base the critical mass on enrollment numbers systemwide, rather than institutionally, and create collaborative majors. Through the use of technology-enhanced classrooms, French, German, and physics programs are now each shared among three universities. A student will take classes from each of the three institutions, and a degree is awarded by the home institution. Stonefield told of a French professor whose perspective significantly changed with the new arrangement. His department is now all of the faculty with whom he worked from the other two schools. "It's not just going out and talking to his next-door neighbors, but rather it's people he communicates with electronically. It's opened up a lot of opportunities and it's changed his way of thinking about delivery of programs," she said.
Lesta Turchen, senior administrator and chief academic officer, similarly described a two-year pilot project in business education. "Each institution identified a specialty area within the business curriculum, and they will deliver that specialty to the other campuses utilizing PictureTel, the Internet, and RDTN [Rural Development Telecommunications Network]," she said. Gough added, "There's a whole PhD program that's shared between two universities: atmospheric, environmental, and water resources. It's on opposite sides of the state."
Stonefield pointed out that individual institutions tend to compete to fill gaps and add programs, which may not be the most efficient use of a state's resources. "The Board of Regents can really represent and coordinate the whole system, all of the institutions. I think that that has the potential for putting a much better perspective on higher education--it is more equitable, and priorities are in the right places," she said.
Perry described an incentive funding plan that the board is using to increase quality throughout the system. He explained that when money is distributed based on whether institutions get students in their classrooms, it sets up a situation where universities compete for the student population. Said Perry, "It does not necessarily mean that there's anything of qualitative value going on, since you're only counting the quantity part of the equation. ... It became very apparent to us that the way we were funding campuses was dysfunctional to the purpose of our goals."
When the board proposed that the institutions concentrate on quality, legislators suggested that performance variables be factored into their funding. The board took 5 percent off the top of the base budgets of the institutions and set the money aside in five pools; if the universities perform well over the next year, they earn their money back. Incentives include increasing the number of resident students (out-of-state students bring their own incentive of higher tuition), growing academic programs in areas that benefit South Dakota's economy, increasing academic quality (based on students' progress), increasing collaborative efforts among the institutions, and raising external dollars.
Tools to work with
Investments in technology are necessary for the Board of Regents to streamline its initiatives and share resources. About a year ago, five information technology goals were identified for the higher education system. Ben Dar, vice president for technology at Black Hills State University, described those goals: Every student will have access to and be proficient in using technology appropriately to his or her discipline; faculty will have access to appropriate technology to improve the teaching and learning environment; every building and room will be wired and, where appropriate, provide access to local, regional, national, and international information resources; universities will have the capacity to send and receive educational programs and instructions to and from anywhere at any time; and necessary support will be provided for an efficient and effective learning environment.
Dar was recently asked to serve as a consultant to help the Board of Regents draft a system technology infrastructure plan, which would help achieve these goals. Coordinating with the institutions, Dar identified five broad instructional technology areas: campus backbone, campus building wiring and connections, campus technology classrooms, campus computers, and instructional technology support. Working with those, Dar set up a series of spreadsheets to map the resources and identify needs across the system.
"The two broad issues in my mind for instructional technology are access and use," explained Dar. The first four goals and areas fit into the access category, and the last, support, addresses effective use. "The infrastructure is the foundation for allowing access to the super-information highway," he said, and he cited networking as an example. Without the physical elements, the transfer of files and communication is not possible. Network administration, or support, is necessary to make the process effective and efficient.
Beyond the system
Institutions in South Dakota have taken their ability to collaborate beyond the public higher education system. South Dakota's research institutions are partnering regionally and nationally to gain access to high-speed networks. And South Dakota boasts one of the most unified library consortiums in the United States.
The Great Plains Network (GPN) is a consortium that South Dakota has created with five other states: North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Funded in part by the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), the states are connecting through a high-bandwidth network to share resources among their universities. The states based their proposal to NSF on a common thread, earth systems science. They plan to use the high-speed network to access data from the EROS (Earth Resources Observation System) Data Center, a federal facility in South Dakota that collects archives of satellite imaging of the earth.
Three of the six South Dakota system institutions--the South Dakota State University, the School of Mines, and the University of South Dakota--are members of Internet2. Those memberships reflect an investment of approximately half a million dollars a year for the next few years. USD Director of the Office of Research Royce Engstrom explained, "South Dakota recognizes that we can't be left behind in this movement; it's too important a transition not to be a part of it."
Engstrom emphasized the level of cooperation that projects of this scope involve, saying, "It's really a good example of cooperation at its best--there's cooperation within the state, cooperation with other states, cooperation with NSF. It's really a partnership, and it shows what can be accomplished when groups of people get together."
Within the state, the South Dakota Library Network (SDLN), whose data center reports to the director of RIS, also reflects the state's collaborative approach. A computer automation consortium for libraries, SDLN comprises forty-seven libraries and is currently run by a staff of two people, plus student help, who are familiar with computer operations, user training, and the terminology of librarians. Started as a consortium in 1988, SDLN is supported by member fees and includes the major libraries in the state, in addition to a sampling of federal, hospital, specialized, and school libraries. As a service to its members, SDLN provides an online card catalog, an automated circulation system, serials, acquisitions, interlibrary loan, and inventory, and hosts a variety of reference databases on their servers. The institutions each have their own computer centers, but public libraries do not, so SDLN effectively acts as their computer center as well.
Gary Johnson, director of SDLN, explained that the few other states that do have statewide library systems are not as diverse and inclusive in their memberships. He also said that it's rare to combine the computing and library help calls into one center. "Here we are one group, and we understand the terminology of both sides. It's easier to provide solutions that way," Johnson said.
While the Board of Regents will set a direction or tone on a project, "the details of putting it into effect will be quite often a cooperative effort or consensus decision-making procedure so people are more aware and more comfortable," said Stonefield. Committees, such as those for SIS and the technology infrastructure initiative, include both institutional and functional representation, assuring that all areas have a voice. Wilson explained that one of the biggest transitions for him in moving from a single institution to the South Dakota system eight years ago was the increase in communication and coordination. "It's phenomenal--exponential," he said. "Instead of one academic affairs officer, you're working with six plus a board office member. I don't think a day goes by without some type of system meeting."
One of the challenges is communicating effectively while being so spread out. E-mail and conference calls are critical, of course, and there's a fair amount of traveling as well. And, Turchen noted, one of the goals of the office will be to use PictureTel when it's not in use for classes. Increased use of the videoconferencing facilities is about a year away, after a bit of adapting and remodeling, she says. But most important in the communication is the willingness to work together. Said Burke, "I think we've developed a strong trust in the communication. People have freedom to say what they need to say, and I think we've fostered that trusting environment. You can have e-mail, but you have to be able to talk to the person on the other end."
At fewer than ten per square mile, people are another of South Dakota's scarce resources, but Perry notes that throughout the system people put a lot of energy into their work. Said Wilson, "South Dakota is small enough that you really know people all the way across the state. There are a lot of ties. I think that develops a sense of responsibility."
Still, coordinating among so many so far away takes a lot of effort, as each institution has its own identity and mission. "We certainly have our differences," said Burke. "But we have to find some common denominators to share work." Wilson explained, "You have six institutions, two special schools, and a board office. You're trying to get everyone together to agree on a direction and move that way, and it just takes an enormous amount of communication, patience, and skill--and sometimes a big step."
Executive Director Robert T. Tad Perry
Robert T. Tad Perry is the executive director of the Board of Regents and an avid supporter of technology. Perry was taken on board four years ago to address several objectives, two of which mentioned technology directly; he was also charged with the task of creating a truly unified university system. "Unified system" is one of Perry's four themes, along with management, accountability, and quality--and these themes are not just abstract visions. Paul Gough, director of policy and planning, has them scrawled on a Post-It note stuck to his computer monitor.
"My view of technology is that it really underpins what we want to accomplish in the system." Perry says, explaining that investments in technology enable the board to capture efficiencies in the system. And the system approach--sharing resources--is critical for public higher education in South Dakota. "If we did not have the RIS staff operation built in, if we had to do this with six institutions, and fight all the battles you have to fight with setting up databases, much less getting agreement on things and managing the resources, I would need about twenty people in this office just to fight those battles."
CAUSE/EFFECT's Campus Profile department regularly focuses on the information resources environment--information, technology, and services--of an EDUCAUSE member institution, to promote a better understanding of how information resources are organized, managed, planned for, and used in colleges and universities of various sizes and types. This article is based on a visit to the South Dakota Board of Regents by EDUCAUSE Writer/Reporter Shannon Burgert.
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