Read the original article in The Oregonian here.
Next year is the first year of the rest of the University of Oregon's life.
Also Portland State's. And maybe Oregon State's, and possibly some of the smaller regional universities.
This week, the Legislature passed the bill creating a path for institutional boards of regents for the state's universities, allowing them to cut loose from the Oregon State Board of Higher Education. The process was delayed by disputes over the makeup of the boards and the position of the smaller universities, but the boards can now go forward.
In the budgeting process, the state's universities at least did better than in many other sessions. "We are very pleased with our operating budget, which is up nearly 8 percent from the last biennium," said interim chancellor Melody Rose. While the Legislature has not yet completed its capital construction budget, signs are encouraging there, useful for a system where enrollment continues to shoot up.
But the universities' 8 percent increase is dramatically lower than the overall increase in the general fund budget, or the 17 percent increase for K-12 spending. In terms of state investment, higher education -- both universities and community colleges -- continues to trail the nation, at the same time the state proclaims its goal, distant right now, of 40 percent of Oregonians with at least four-year degrees, 40 percent with two-year degrees or credentials, and the remaining 20 percent finishing high school.
The desire to improve that funding level, and buy down some of next year's projected average tuition increase of 5 percent, was one driver of persistent legislative efforts to find a "grand bargain" to make some more money available. Asked how he thought higher education funding had turned out, Senate education committee chairman Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, assessed, "Without the grand bargain bill? Terrible."
The institutional board move was originally driven by some large contributors to the University of Oregon, who convinced that philanthropy and autonomy could do what state funding was never going to accomplish. Portland State signed on, believing that a Portland-based board could strengthen both fundraising and community ties.
The concept has promise for both schools, and possibly for Oregon State, which is still undecided on the idea. The belated interest by smaller universities, and questions on whether faculty, students and staff members would be voting members, were ultimately resolved by appropriately kicking them down the road to the governor and the board of higher education.
The smaller universities -- Western Oregon, Southern Oregon, Eastern Oregon and Oregon Tech -- require and deserve special protection, and the cost-saving benefits of shared services. It's harder to see them getting major philanthropic benefits from an institutional board, but House higher education committee chairman Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, insists that's not the point: "I think there are other good reasons to have local boards, to focus on the needs of each community, to have everyone with interest have access to the board."
Still, there are legitimate concerns about guarding affordability, as the example of the autonomous Oregon Health & Science University suggests. As Nick Budnick reported in The Oregonian this week, OHSU tuition has soared until the nursing and dental school costs are the second highest in the nation, and the medical school tuition third, with more increases coming. This week, the university promised not to increase tuition for students after their enrollment.
There will be limits on how much the new boards can increase tuition without outside approval. But the OHSU example is still a cautionary tale of the limits of restructuring without adequate funding, and the risks when a public institution is cut loose to focus on its own interests.
This session looked into some other innovative higher ed strategies. It referred to next year's ballot state Treasurer Ted Wheeler's plan to issue bonds to set up a state scholarship program, and set up a task force to explore the idea of students pledging a share of future earnings to finance their education.
Still, it's not enough for Oregon's leaders to insist that they understand the importance of providing opportunity and access to its students, and of a high-quality higher education system in a high-tech 21st century world. If Oregon wants to make a serious run at 40-40-20, and if it wants to advance its universities' national rankings and presence, at some point it will have to truly invest in its system.
"Ultimately, we need to find a way to make sure that higher ed is not at the back of the line," says Michael Dembrow. "That's still what we see every session."