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The Oregonian: Oregon higher education stands to get powerful new overseer
Author: Betsy Hammond
Posted: April 15, 2013

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Higher education in Oregon is about to get a new boss, and what the heck do you think they're planning to call the new board that would control public universities, community colleges and college financial aid?

Say goodbye to a powerfulState Board of Higher Education and hello to a much-more-powerful Higher Education Coordinating Commission, or HECC, referred to in a way that sounds like "the heck."

The House Higher Education Committee and Gov. John Kitzhaber's education adviser, Ben Cannon, spent more than an hour Friday discussing their plan to remake the landscape of higher education. House Bill 3120, which is still being written, would remove power from at least four governmental bodies, including the Legislature, to put a single entity in charge of funding and coordinating public higher education.

Architects of the plan, Gov. John Kitzhaber chief among them, say having a single board look out for the interests of students and the state will lead to better results at lower costs. Only about 40 percent of Oregonians earn college credentials, a figure Kitzhaber and the Legislature say needs to double by 2025.

Unlike a plan Kitzhaber announced last fall, this one wouldn't create a single Department of Post-Secondary Education to help the HECC exercise its new powers. Instead, HECC would oversee three existing agencies -- the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development, the chancellor's office and the office of student assistance.

If the Legislature approves the bill, this year will be the last that lawmakers get to decide how much money goes to the four-year universities, how much to community colleges and how much to financial aid. Under the plan, the Legislature would make a single allocation to higher education, and the HECC would decide how to divvy it up.

Technically, Oregon already has a Higher Education Coordinating Commission, created in 2012. But that low-profile panel, which wasn't given any money to hire staff nor to allocate to colleges, would essentially be remade when it gets vast new powers and a whole slate of new governor-appointed members in 2014.

Similarly, the State Board of Higher Education would continue to exist in name but would be weakened into a panel that helps operate four or five of Oregon's public universities, no longer controls funding or program approval for any university, and loses all authority for half the public university students in the state.

Most of the changes for the state higher ed board would be carried out through a separate bill, Senate Bill 270, to create independent boards to run the University of Oregon and Portland State University. Oregon State University also could switch from oversight by the higher ed board to an independent OSU board if President Ed Ray opts for that approach.

Both bills are expected to get their first committee votes this week, just days or even hours ahead of Thursday's deadline for bills to advance out of committee or die.

The new HECC and the independent university boards would not get their new powers until July 2014. But the governor would likely appoint the members as early as this fall so they can get up to speed, said House Higher Education Chairman Michael Dembrow.

HECC would also hire a paid executive director, another new education position in Oregon after the creation of the chief education officer (now held by Rudy Crew) to oversee education from preschool through college and an appointed deputy superintendent of instruction (now held by Rob Saxton) to run the Oregon Department of Education and oversee preschool and K-12 education.

The point of creating an all powerful HECC is to "make a lot more sense of this higher education soup" of multiple, sometimes-overlapping boards and commissions, Cannon said.

The Oregon Student Access Commission, which oversees financial aid, would be disbanded and the Oregon Board of Education would lose its power to oversee community colleges. HECC would be the consolidated superpower.

"For the first time, you have a single board responsible, including for funding distribution, for the entire post-secondary system," Cannon said. "You go from having a jumble of boards to having a single board for all of higher education. This establishes that funding is done by the HECC, which is a big deal."

Representatives of community colleges, the UO, the university system, the State Board of Higher Education, PSU and the Oregon Student Access Commission all testified effusively in favor of the proposed changes.