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The Oregon Legislature has had a long, undistinguished record on higher education.
In this session, it would be a shame to extend that.
For nearly two years, a legislative interim work group and the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee worked on a structure to allow Oregon's universities to set up institutional boards, providing them with more autonomy, deeper connections with their communities and -- especially -- opportunities for fundraising.
The idea was driven by a group of well-heeled University of Oregon supporters, but Portland State quickly came around to the idea, and Oregon State's interest is clearly growing. In a state whose higher education pattern has been under-investment turning to disinvestment, the idea carries the potential for a strengthening of higher education clearly unlikely to come from the Legislature.
The Senate education committee endorsed the proposed legislation unanimously and sent it to the joint Ways and Means Committee, where it has sat for two months. Now, with the Legislature hoping to adjourn as soon as June 28, Ways and Means' education subcommittee finally plans to hold a hearing on the proposal this week.
Concerns about support for the smaller regional universities -- notably from Southern Oregon University, represented by Ways and Means co-Chairman Peter Buckley, D-Ashland -- and about tuition and board makeup have snagged the process. The regional universities in particular have a real claim to recognition and protection, but these issues should not be allowed to add another chapter to Salem's long history of failing to advance Oregon's universities.
Southern and Eastern Oregon universities have now expressed some interest in having their own boards. The idea should not be dismissed, but also might not fit precisely into the carefully arranged template designed for the larger universities with demonstrated fundraising capacity. The proposal to work out a pattern for regionals' boards through the State Board of Higher Education, while the larger universities go forward with their plans, should resolve this issue.
The question of the support the smaller universities get from being part of a larger system is also legitimate, but nothing that should derail the entire process.
"For me, having my own board was never about being able to process my own payroll," says Portland State President Wim Wiewel.
"Our whole business is going to change in the next five years in ways that we've never seen. This is why you need a board. The answer is going to be very different for all our institutions."
Limiting tuition increases is also a real concern for the Ways and Means Committee, although finding some money to buy down next year's proposed increases might be more productive than trying to retain decision powers out of proportion to the state's investment. Dictating the makeup of the institutional boards, and the roles of faculty and students, may be less fitting at this point; as Senate education committee Chairman Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, complains, "The budget guys shouldn't be changing policy."
The lines are not always that sharply drawn in Salem, or maybe at any other legislature. What is sharp is the need for a higher education future that goes beyond the state's level of higher education funding, allowing at least its major universities to forge their own directions toward a quality level and a 40-40-20 formula that the Legislature has proclaimed but cannot fund.
That awareness is what drove the group of University of Oregon supporters to seek greater university autonomy, a goal that they are prepared to pursue by initiative if the Legislature falls short yet again on higher education. A reform plan painstakingly devised by legislators seems a better bargain for the state than a measure written by a narrow group.
When this Legislature departs, at the end of this month or the beginning of the next, its record on higher education could yet look impressive.
Or it could look familiar.