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The biggest names in Oregon’s business community are putting their muscle behind an effort to reform the state’s ailing higher education system.
A group that includes Nike Inc. co-founder Phil Knight and Columbia Sportswear Co. CEO Tim Boyle wants lawmakers to cut the cord between Oregon’s seven public universities and the state governing body that oversees them. Boyle and others say doing so will lead to lower costs and improved access to higher education, ultimately stabilizing the state’s wobbly economy.
Among those who have donated to a new political action committee called Oregonians for Higher Education Excellence:
- Nike’s Knight: $65,000
- Columbia’s Boyle: $62,500
- Former University of Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny: $65,000
- Columbia Distributing Chairman Ed Maletis: $65,000
- Charles Lillis, co-founder and managing partner of LoneTree Capital Partners: $65,000
John von Schlegell, co-founder and managing partner of Endeavour Capital, the state’s largest private equity firm, is one of the committee’s directors.
“The goal is to create an atmosphere of excellence in higher education in Oregon,” said Boyle, a long-time advocate for higher education reform. “The state has been dis-investing in higher education for years now and the goal is to see, if that dis-investment continues, how do we promote excellence in higher education in the face of a declining budget.”
Oregon ranks No. 42 in state funding per student. It ranks No. 16 for tuition and No. 16 for student loan debt.
If lawmakers don’t address the issue, Boyle and other committee members will continue raising money and push the issue to the ballot for a statewide vote.
What it could accomplish
The Oregon Board of Higher Education oversees the state’s seven public universities. Instead of one board that oversees seven distinct and far-flung universities, Boyle and other committee members want each university to have the option of having its own governing board, similar to what exists for Oregon Health & Science University.
Such local boards would have several powers:
l he authority to hire and fire the president of the institution.
l ore budgetary control. The state would still give public universities some money, but the universities would have more control over how it’s spent.
l onding authority. For instance, if Portland State University wants to build a new business school, it would have the authority to issue bonds to pay for construction. Currently, that authority rests with the state. University officials say that makes the process slow and cumbersome.
l undraising. A local board that oversees Portland State, for instance, could build partnerships with local businesses as well as attract more philanthropic dollars through the connections of well connected board members.
“People are going to give money to an organization where they can see something happening,” Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, a member of the Senate Education Committee, told the Business Journal in December. “They’re not going to toss money into a big garbage can at the state level. I don’t see any way to get financing into the system without (local boards).”
Legislature gets first crack
An interim committee of state lawmakers has been meeting every two weeks to discuss the issue since the Legislature adjourned in March. By mid-August, the committee must make two key recommendations to next year’s Legislature:
l ow to streamline Oregon’s education system.
l hould the state’s seven public universities have the option of local boards.
The first is much thornier than it might seem.
In 2011, lawmakers created the Oregon Education Investment Board, which is charged with overseeing the state’s education system. Some say it makes the Board of Higher Education, which oversees the state’s seven universities, and the Board of Education, which manages K-12 schools and community colleges, obsolete.
The state also has a new coordinating entity, called the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which is charged with coordinating all secondary education. Currently, there’s little formal coordination between public universities, private universities and community colleges.
The interim legislative committee needs to figure out how all of the pieces fit together and whether it should recommend eliminating any state agencies or commissions.
After solving that riddle, lawmakers will turn their attention to local boards. Most say it’s likely they’ll recommend making local boards an option for the state’s seven public universities.
“At this point I can’t say that we’re going to end up with institutional boards but I think that the likelihood is that we will in some form,” said Rep. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, a co-chair of the committee. “The question becomes how independent.”
Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, who co-chairs the interim committee, said there’s also a lot of confusion about higher education reform. Some of the changes that have been made by the Legislature in the past two years address some of Boyle’s concerns.
For instance, Oregon’s seven public universities are no longer state agencies, meaning they already have more financial freedom.
If lawmakers come up short, Boyle said the committee, which already has nearly $325,000, will continue raising money and push the issue to the ballot.
Von Schlegell said the group has researched how much a ballot campaign would cost, but he declined to share details.
He also said early polling suggests voters would support the measure as long as the campaign can connect the importance of local boards to job creation and the state’s overall economy.
“It’s an issue that needs a lot of education,” he said. “It’s not exactly what people think about when they wake up in the morning.”
Another issue: The committee is stacked with University of Oregon alums, such as Knight and Boyle. It needs to defuse criticism that it’s simply an effort to give the University of Oregon an edge over other state universities.
“This is not a University of Oregon-centric issue,” said von Schlegell, a Stanford alum and former member of the Oregon Board of Higher Education. “I’ve had discussions with other alums and business leaders from the other higher education institutions. The group continues to expand to include people from Oregon State, Portland State and the other schools.”
“I’m not a Beaver or a Viking or a Duck. To me it’s about return on investment.”
Not everybody is sold on the idea.
“I’m not a supporter of individual boards,” said Southern Oregon University President Mary Cullinan. “I’m committed to the concept of a statewide mission for the Oregon University System. It’s important for there to be over-arching vision for the state and that each of the seven public institutions plays a different but crucial role within that statewide vision.”
Cullinan pointed out that states with much larger higher education systems — such as Texas and California — operate with some sort of statewide governing body.
And while Oregon moves toward more independence, some states are seeking less in order to increase efficiency.
Michigan’s public universities, for instance, operate independently. Each asks the Legislature for funding. Some question whether that’s the most efficient way to run a statewide system, said Bruce Vandal of Colorado-based Education Commission of the States. Louisiana is having similar discussions.
Vandal said there are no accepted best practices for how to run a statewide university system. Similar to Oregon, other states are also moving in the direction of more local control, such as Wisconsin.
“What you get from looking at the national scene is there clearly is no one model where that’s the right way of organizing it,” said Portland State President Wim Wiewel, who supports local boards. “That doesn’t mean that in a particular place at a particular time changing the structure wouldn’t make a difference.”
“This is an issue on which reasonable people can disagree,” Wiewel said.
Boyle’s solution: make it optional.
“If an institution doesn’t want a local board, they shouldn’t have to have it,” he said.
- Forty-two of the top 100 public colleges on the 2012 U.S. News College Rankings operate with institutional governing boards.