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Oregon Health & Science University stepped out from beneath the Oregon University System’s umbrella 18 years ago, organizing itself as a public corporation with its own board of directors. OHSU has thrived ever since, and none of its progress has come at the expense of the seven OUS universities. The Legislature should recognize that more autonomy for other universities need not be detrimental to those that would continue to be governed by the OUS.
The University of Oregon and Portland State University are seeking legislative approval of Senate Bill 270, which would place them under the authority of their own boards, subject to a number of limitations. Oregon State University wants the option of forming its own board at a later date. Each institutional board would have the power to hire and fire the university president, set tuition rates within parameters, issue bonds for capital projects and act in other ways that currently require approval of the state Board of Higher Education, the Legislature or both.
From the day it was conceived, the plan’s effect on the state’s four smaller universities has been a primary concern. The regional campuses depend more heavily on the OUS for a variety of administrative services than the large universities do. If the UO, PSU and perhaps OSU go their own ways, the four others worry that their financial and political positions would be weakened as part of a smaller OUS.
The concern is real, which is why state and university officials have been working to ensure that autonomy doesn’t mean anarchy. Even if some universities are governed by their own boards, the state would continue to have an interest in ensuring that higher education in Oregon is coordinated. No one wants a free-for-all, with every campus pursuing its own interests regardless of the consequences for the others.
But now, as the legislative session enters its final weeks, SB 270 has stalled because of worries about its effects on the regional universities. State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, co-chairman of the joint Ways and Means Committee, has kept the bill on hold since April in an effort to ensure that the smaller institutions — including Southern Oregon University in his district — are protected.
Despite SB 270, the winds of change in education are generally blowing in the direction of centralization. Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposed Higher Education Coordinating Commission would have veto power over new academic programs at all Oregon universities, regardless of whether they had their own boards, and would allocate state funds among them. Rudy Crew, the governor’s chief education officer, has authority over education at all levels, including public universities. Universities are required to prepare achievement compacts outlining their goals and plans for attaining them. No university will be able to embark on a course that weakens or impoverishes any of the others.
All this change — separate boards for some universities on one hand, and greater top-to-bottom coordination of education on the other — would probably bring unanticipated consequences. But the Legislature meets yearly now, and can respond quickly to any unexpected problems that arise. The regional universities, for instance, want the option of creating their own boards — an option that could be granted next year if necessary, without derailing SB 270 in the current session.
No one is certain what Oregon’s higher education system will look like in five years. But it will still be a system, and regional universities will be an important part of it. SB 270 should move forward — it will cost the smaller universities nothing to give the larger ones greater leeway in managing their own affairs.