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Portland Business Journal: PSU boss on funding cuts, tuition hikes, $8 million gift
Author: Matthew Kish, Portland Business Journal
Posted: May 10, 2013

Read the original story here in the Portland Business Journal. 

Wim Wiewel unpacked in the president’s office at Portland State University in early 2008. A few months later, the economy collapsed.

Five years later, despite continued economic headwinds, Wiewel can tick off an impressive list of accomplishments: Portland State is now the largest university in the state. The city created a $169 million urban renewal area around the university last year. The university’s business accelerator is a hot spot for entrepreneurial activity. PSU continues to add programs that respond to needs of the workforce. This year, Wiewel also launched ReThink PSU, a campus-wide effort to revamp the university’s business model.

This week, Portland State also announced an $8 million anonymous gift toward a $60 million renovation and expansion of its School of Business Administration.

The Business Journal visited with Wiewel to talk about the project and his accomplishments. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

PBJ: What does the $8M gift mean?

Wiewel: As an act of philanthropy, it shows Portland State is being recognized by donors. This equals our largest gift from a private individual.

PBJ: Describe the project?

Wiewel: It’s not a Taj Majal. We’re not building something super fancy. Some universities are investing in gilt-edged buildings. We don’t do that. But we will be building highly functional, aesthetically pleasing, interesting buildings.

PBJ: How has the project changed since it was conceived?

Wiewel: At one time we were thinking of building a new building on the Park Blocks. I wasn’t sure that was the most cost-effective approach because then we’d be left with an old facility right here.

PBJ: It’s a critical time for higher education. State funding is declining. Tuition prices are rising. Enrollment is dropping. What are the biggest challenges?

Wiewel: The big challenge is that the Legislature has asked us to increase the number of students we take and the number of students we graduate. It is our moral and institutional responsibility to serve the population of the Portland metropolitan area. But we have an imperative to grow in the absence of sufficient funding to make that possible.

PBJ: What concerns do you have about enrollment flattening?

Wiewel: It means there are people out there not getting the education they should be getting. If our enrollment was flat because the population was declining or flat, then I’d say, “You can’t turn trees into students. That’s just the way it is.” There are people out there who need an education and either can’t afford it or think they can’t afford it.

PBJ: How well do you think the state’s doing on its 40-40-20 goals?

Wiewel: Not well. The state has not increased funding for higher education. The governor has proposed an increase which would be the first time since I’ve come to Oregon. It doesn’t even begin to make up the amount of money we’ve lost over the last five years, both in straight cuts and in increased payments we have to make to PERS and PEBB. We have lost like half the money from the state since I’ve been here. We’ve had to replace that with tuition increases, which have had the affect of pricing people out of the market.

PBJ: What concerns do you have about pricing students out?

Wiewel: The rapid tuition increases that we were forced to make because of the huge cuts in state support have a terribly chilling effect on attendance. We’ve seen that.

PBJ: Fast-forward, what do you want your greatest achievement at PSU to be?

Wiewel: I want to be done with people being surprised by us. I want to be done with people saying, “I didn’t know you were doing such great work here.” I don’t want it to be a surprise anymore.

Matthew Kish covers banking, finance, footwear/apparel and higher education.