As viewed from the peanut gallery, the struggle over Gov. Mitt Romney’s government-reorganization plan has been a fascinating, if at times horrifying, spectacle. When the plan was outlined in the governor’s budget proposal, the Legislature’s first reaction–from a collection of House task forces that summarily rejected nearly every element, one after another–sparked references in my shop to Groucho Marx’s Professor Wagstaff, in Horse Feathers: “Whatever it is, I’m against it! / No matter what it is or who commenced it, I’m against it!” In June, the state Senate administered the coup de grace to the administration’s grand restructuring scheme (then in the form of twin Article 87 reorganization bills, which lawmakers could only accept or reject in their entirety, without amendment), leaving the governor–or at least Eric Kriss, his administration and finance secretary and designated attack dog–to decry the Legislature’s resistance to “reform.”

But, more quietly, through its favored vehicle of the budget (outside sections have made a big comeback this year), the Legislature has given the new governor a surprising amount of what he wants, considering the shortage of Republican votes in either branch. Most notable is the sweeping reorganization of the state’s vast human-services bureaucracy, to which both the House and the Senate have given approval. Many other Romney proposals–some inspired, others half-baked–did fall by the wayside. But it seems safe to say that, for all the posturing of this spring, the slow-turning wheels of government are grinding toward change in a variety of areas.

If only this strange but oddly functional dissonance between public clash and quiet accommodation had held up in the arena of public higher education. Here, however, a serious discussion of substance was upstaged by political theater.

For Romney and his political handlers, the allure of taking on University of Massachusetts President William Bulger, a potent but wounded symbol of politics as usual, might have been too enticing to pass up. But as a wedge into the institutional disorganization of public higher education, the Battle of the Bulger backfired. That’s in part because Beacon Hill pols proved to be remarkably unself-conscious about having the mantle of Bulger draped around their shoulders. As leader of UMass, he has made few enemies and won his share of admirers (see “Big Man on Campus,” CW, Summer 2000). Even the spectacle of his congressional testimony about what he did or didn’t do to aid his fugitive-gangster brother has not been enough to make Bulger as politically radioactive as the governor’s strategists presumed him to be.

But the tactic also failed because the decapitation of the state university seemed so much at odds with the thrust of the governor’s plan. If anything, UMass was the closest model to what Romney was proposing for higher ed as a whole: a unified system of campuses, led by a single executive, with funds provided by a single line-item in the state budget and doled out by a central governing board. It just had Bulger at the top, along with the UMass board of trustees that hired him, rather than Romney (or education chief Peter Nessen, who resigned once he did not get his secretariat) and the state Board of Higher Education, which, under his proposal, he would have appointed anew. In the end, Romney neither rid himself of Bulger nor gained the authority over the public higher-education system that he sought.

Although the Bulger gambit managed to turn the future of public higher education into a political sideshow this spring, the issue itself has not gone away. There is a certain madness to the method of post-secondary study provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: a virtually independent state university, governed exclusively by its own board of trustees, operating in tandem with state and community colleges that are nominally ruled by the state Board of Higher Education but more directly accountable to their own local boards.

Even more bewildering is the funding process. State monies are allocated in a way that is both arbitrarily mechanical (half of the overall higher-ed appropriation for the university, one quarter each for the state colleges and the community colleges) and politically wired (individual line-items appropriated for each state and community college campus, with legislative clout counting for more than need or merit). Meanwhile, the incentives built into the pricing structure are perverse, serving neither the institution nor the consumer: Tuition is set by the state, with the revenue reverting to the treasury, while fees are set locally, with those funds retained on campus. Over time, fees have become the lion’s share of total student cost, yet even as charges mount, every additional student remains a money-loser for the institution, rather than a money-maker, because it doesn’t get to keep the tuition he or she pays. (The exception here is continuing education, courses in which have become cash cows for community colleges.)

In the first of three State House hearings, then-education point man Peter Nessen spoke out about the frustration born of eight years’ service on the state Board of Higher Education. “Currently, we have silos within silos,” Nessen told lawmakers. “The system must become more accountable.” He was referring to the performance measurement system mandated by the Legislature in 1997. After years of wrangling, he said, “We have gotten agreement from the campuses only on five performance indicators.” The board, said Nessen, “has never been empowered. It can jawbone, but it can’t implement.”

Now, all this makes campus leaders bristle, including the state college presidents who sent a delegation to see me in May. “I find that mind-boggling,” says Westfield State College President Frederick Woodward, of Nessen’s accountability complaints. Between the state’s system, accreditation every 10 years, and regular financial audits, “we feel we spend most of our time on performance measurement,” says Woodward. The problem, says Frederick Clark Jr., executive officer of the State College Council of Presidents and a former chairman of the Bridgewater State College board of trustees, is that performance reports “go to the Board of Higher Education and into a back file. Accountability stops at the Board of Higher Education. It should be shared.”

And made to count for something, adds Helen Heineman, president of Framingham State College. “All this performance has never translated into reward,” says Heineman, arguing for a “more rational” method of distributing resources. “There’s no connection between performance measurement and reward.”

Rationalizing the distribution of state funds and connecting it to performance is, of course, exactly what Nessen and Romney were calling for in their doomed plan. But their brand of rationality is not what the college leaders have in mind. “We feel costs ought to be set locally,” says Woodward. “Peter would like to control it all, set it all.”

Campus leaders would like to hear less talk about the power state officials wish they had and see more evidence of leadership as to where public higher education should be going. The board’s approach to governance, says Dana Mohler-Faria, president of Bridgewater State, “has not been one of a sense of direction. I don’t feel like I’ve gotten that from the Board of Higher Education.

In January 2002, the board and the Massachusetts Institute for Social and Economic Research (MISER) issued a paper that called public higher education “a shrewd investment with significant returns,” citing payoffs for students, employers, and the state. That conclusion is hard to argue with, but on one key piece of analysis, I think the authors missed the boat.

Looking at the 53,000 high school seniors who graduated in 1996 and stayed in state to attend college, 63 percent went to public institutions. Thus, the authors concluded, the public higher-education system is the “primary provider” of post-secondary study, “educating nearly two thirds of…students who have grown up in the Commonwealth.” But, since 26 percent of seniors graduating that year left the state entirely to go on to college, that conclusion is false. In fact, only 47 percent of college-bound Massachusetts seniors gravitated to the state’s public institutions that year, while 53 percent pursued college education outside the state system.

That is the nub of the problem here. Our own state’s system of college education is the option of choice for fewer than half of our homegrown students. By tradition and inclination, the preference for private universities, here or elsewhere–not to mention, in some cases, other states’ public universities–among Massachusetts residents remains strong. As a result, public higher education has been accorded a second-class status here, in politics as well as in the public mind. It is this second-class status that accounts for the state’s inconsistent financial support of public higher education, and its lukewarm commitment to quality.

How long Massachusetts residents will be able to indulge their taste for private college is unclear. In MassINC’s recent survey on the quality of life in Massachusetts, The Pursuit of Happiness, 48 percent of all respondents (and 57 percent of parents) cited the affordability of college education as a major issue; only 7 percent of parents said they had enough money saved to pay for their children’s education. As the cost of private post-secondary education continues to escalate, public higher education will have to become more than a fallback for Massachusetts residents–and more than a political football for the state’s leaders.