As the economy continues to batter university and college systems, some states are looking to consolidate higher education leadership to limit administrative costs, national education experts say.
"In these fiscally distraught times, there is a call for greater efficiency," said Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "Political and policy leaders may think there can be an argument for consolidation."
If Tennessee combines the Tennessee Board of Regents, the University of Tennessee system and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, as Gov. Phil Bredesen is studying, it would be the first state in more than a decade to create a "superboard," officials said.
Doug Horne, chairman of the UT board of trustees' Efficiency and Effectiveness Committee, said consolidating the Board of Regents and the UT system could result in cost savings that UT needs.
While he doesn't believe the UT board will look at a potential merger soon, he said the idea deserves careful study.
"I think the governor is correct," Mr. Horne said. "I think it would save some money and streamline operations."
The last big merger of state higher education institutions was in 1995 when the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system was created. It merged 21 community colleges, 34 technical colleges and seven state universities down to five community colleges, eight technical colleges, 12 merged community and technical colleges and seven state universities, Mr. Hurley said.
In the 1980s, Maryland merged its universities to form the University System of Maryland and, in 1974, the former University of Wisconsin system was merged with the former Wisconsin State Universities system.
Many Tennessee officials cite the University of North Carolina system as a model for Tennessee.
The North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation in 1971 bringing 10 public institutions into the University of North Carolina, according to the UNC Web site. Calls to the university were not returned.
The two-year colleges in North Carolina are managed separately.
Georgia has a similar model. The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia oversees 35 colleges and universities, enrolling about 283,000 students, and the Technical College System of Georgia oversees 33 technical colleges.
"It is all in the name of efficiency," said Mr. Hurley.
Separating for savings
Other states, however, have broken up their higher education systems - also in the name of efficiency, said Richard Novak, senior vice president of the Center for Public Governance. Examples include New Jersey, Illinois, Colorado and West Virginia, he said.
"There are those who argue that a large system can interfere with a university's ability to be nimble for its own region and community," he said.
It's also important to have institutions like the Tennessee Higher Education Commission that are responsible for looking out for the state's interests, he said.
National leaders, including Mr. Hurley and Mr. Novak, said running two very different types of institutions - two-year and four-year colleges - under one roof is difficult.
Community colleges have a very different mission from universities where research is done, Mr. Hurley said.
"The missions are so different that they benefit from a different type of governance model," he said.
Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and chairwoman of the state Senate Education Committee, declined to comment on a merger of the UT and Regents systems. She called the legislative rumblings about such a move "talk in the halls."
She said she has not been approached with any formal proposal for a merger.
"I don't worry about these things until it comes forward in a formal proposal," she said.
Any merger would require action by the General Assembly.