Read the original article in The Oregonian here.
Say this for the higher education restructuring process, which moved forward Friday morning with the start of testimony before the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee:
Like the Lego Death Star kit, there are a lot of pieces to work with. The trick is to find the way to put them together.
The University of Oregon drive for its own board helped fuel higher education restructuring.
Beth Nakamura Currently, there is the chancellor's office and the Board of Higher Education, overseeing the universities. (The state Board of Education oversees community colleges.) There is now the Higher Education Coordinating Committee, created to oversee both universities and community colleges, which connects to the Oregon Education Investment Board, overseeing all Oregon education, and the governor's proposed Department of Post-Secondary Education. This year, the Legislature will set up institutional boards of trustees. The arrangement is eagerly sought by the University of Oregon and Portland State and probably accepted by Oregon State, but not by the three regional universities and Oregon Institute of Technology, which will require some other form of oversight.
Then there's the piece that has generally been missing from the Oregon higher education superstructure, especially over the last decade: funding.
The idea that the larger universities could do better financially with more autonomy has driven the move for institutional boards, led by the University of Oregon, where Nike founder Phil Knight and some other large donors await the restructuring. Since the state's underwriting of the university is now down to single-digit percentages, Duck discontent is understandable, but the Legislature will need to put numerous pieces in place.
Observers expect the institutional board to select university presidents, with the board members nominated by the governor, although the local leadership might expect a voice. But both selection processes still need to be defined. Boards would set tuition, although the Legislature might put some limits on that. There might also be questions about another university revenue strategy, increasing the proportion of students from out of state -- more helpful to the universities' bottom line than the state's 40-40-20 goal.
Legislators might rightly approach the setting of such standards with modesty. As Senate Education Committee Chairman Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, says, "It's easy to say, 'Here's what you should do,' and then not fund it."
"The universities must achieve a new measure of autonomy that will help them increase their administrative efficiency and contain costs," all seven university presidents wrote in a statement to the House committee Friday morning. "It is essential that any new governance structure provide greater flexibility for the institutions to remain fiscally viable, while also remaining accountable to the public."
But if the Legislature needs to surrender some ownership, some coordination is still required. The governor's office sees that coming from the Higher Education Coordinating Committee, which would approve degree programs and major academic redirections. The new structure would also let the institutional boards issue bonds, which might also require some oversight.
And the higher education legislative requests would come through the commission. As Ben Cannon, Gov. Kitzhaber's education adviser, puts it, "We don't want the universities to be engaged in a kind of food fight at the Legislature."
Still, he declares, "We're envisioning a system where the state is not the boss of the universities."
That's an appropriate goal. In creating a separate Department of Post-Secondary Education, the state would also spur a focus on higher education not always evident in Salem.
But there is still the missing piece, needed to fit it all together. "Governance is not as important as funding," notes Hass. "We wouldn't be having this conversation if we were funding universities on the level of Washington or North Carolina."
And while more institutional autonomy could strengthen the finances of the big universities, especially the U of O, it won't do much for the regional universities, particularly important to first-generation college students. The Legislature also needs to maintain financial support and a voice as the major universities find their own way; institutional interests are generally similar to those of the state, but not necessarily identical.
Throughout the system, the strategies used to cover state disinvestment -- increased tuition and mounting student debt -- are approaching realistic limits. To reach the state goal of 40 percent of adults with at least a four-year degree and another 40 percent with a two-year degree or certificate, Oregon will need more than restructuring.
It's one thing to assemble the Death Star. It's another to get it off the ground.