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PSU: Oregon's Largest University Looks For Room To Grow
Author: Rob Manning, OPB
Posted: April 1, 2013

Click here for the full article and audio.

Students across Oregon come back from Spring Break Monday. Thousands are starting the spring term at Portland State University.

Students gather at PSU.

Courtesy PSU
Students gather at PSU.

PSU is already Oregon’s largest university. And it’s expected to get a whole lot bigger over the next decade.

It’s hard to believe a school with nearly 30,000 students could be easy to miss. But PSU president, Wim Wiewel, says to some Portlanders it is.

“One of the comments that I get that drives me craziest is when people around town say ‘oh, yeah, I know you guys, Portland State – you’re on the southern end of downtown, but I never know quite where it is’,” Wiewel says.

To be fair, the way PSU’s modern buildings are mixed in with commercial and city offices does camouflage the campus a bit. And, PSU students tend to be older and live off-campus.

There are a few ways that Portland State could get more visible. For one, it might just get too big to miss.

PSU Student Housing

Rob Manning / OPB
PSU Student Housing

PSU has grown by an average of seven hundred students a year for the last decade – helping Oregon to become the fastest-growing university system in the country.

But Wiewel plans for even faster growth at PSU.

“The way we see it, is that PSU has to grow to about 40,000 students, from the current 29,000.”

Wiewel says to help Oregon reach its long-term college completion goals, PSU must add roughly one thousand students a year. It would mean doubling PSU’s enrollment in the first quarter of the 21st century.

That might be hard to miss. But so will much of the construction PSU is doing to make room for it.

When its doors opened back in September, the 16-floor University Pointe tower increased housing capacity at PSU by almost fifty percent. Students are here from overseas, or like Sabrina Wilkin, from Hillsboro.

“I don’t need to drive an hour and a half to see a teacher – I can just walk, like five minutes, which is a huge benefit,” Wilkin says.

President Wiewel says by 2025 he wants a quarter of the student body to live on campus, or within a ten-minute walk. He says residential students do better academically, they create a livelier campus experience, and down the line, they’re more likely to become donors.

“But that’s not the motivation for building housing. That’s a good subsidiary effect. The main thing is we know that the more engaged studentsare, the better the experience is, and the more likely they are to graduate.”

In case ten thousand students in downtown Portland aren’t obvious enough, Portland State is embarking on several high-profile projects.

Wiewel says PSU is not in the real estate development business. But Jordan Schnitzer is.

Schnitzer’s philanthropic parents attended Lincoln and Shattuck Halls back when they were public school buildings.

Jordan Schnitzer was on hand to celebrate plans to turn Lincoln Hall’s brick wall along  Southwest Broadway into a three-story glass façade. 

“We were blessed and fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and be able to fund this glass tower. I think oftentimes, people don’t know where Portland State. And if there’s anything that this glass tower, will be a beacon about ‘here we are.’ That will work both internally and externally.”

The project will literally provide a window into what’s happening at PSU’s newly dubbed “College of the Arts.” But as Schnitzer suggests, the glass wall could also signify how PSU is looking out to chart its future, too. 

At the same time PSU is planning to grow, the dean of the business school at PSU, Scott Dawson, says the views of students are changing.

“People are now saying ‘you know what? Maybe I don’t need a degree, maybe I can just take a couple of courses in microelectronics, and that’s good enough for me to get started in my career.’ Universities are under a lot of pressure right now. It’s not just ‘open up the doors and let them come in,’ any more.”

The business school is at the heart of PSU’s evolution.

It now shares a non-descript modern building on 6th Avenue with the School of Education. But there’s a $60 million  plan to relocate the education school out, add thousands of square feet of classroom space and effectively double the business school’s footprint.

Dawson says higher education is also confronting online learning and the concept of the “21st century classroom” is changing. 

“In many respects, online learning is a totally disruptive innovation, and no one can tell you what things are going to look like at the end of the day. But you have to try, and get something outthere, and do it with the knowledge that it’s probably not going to be right.”

PSU is now engaged in a broader discussion about how teaching and learning at the university should change. Dawson coined the phrase “ReThink PSU” for the effort. But president Wiewel, and the provost he hired, Sona Andrews, are the forces behind it.

Andrews launched “ReThink PSU” by reaching out to faculty members.

“So, we’ve actually set aside three million dollars of one-time money. I think that got people’s attention, as well.”

Andrews called for proposals to address technology, rising costs, changing student demographics, and therole of higher education.

She got 162 submissions. She says some suggest pretty big changes.

“There’s one that has an undergraduate degree that would be online, takes into account credit for prior learning, credentialing learning for prior experience - and have it be a three-year degree.”

PSU junior Linda Hoppes reviewed many ideas, and liked seeing the focus on high-tech spaces intended for class discussions.

But she wanted students to be consulted more. And she worried about the cost to students.

“Like everybody would need a computer – but what about the students that can’t afford a computer, 24 hours a day? That’s not going to be very equitable for them.”

Participating faculty members will hear in the next few weeks who among them will get hundreds of thousands of dollars to work on their concepts.

Leaders expect the Portland State of 2025 to be bigger and better able to serve students living on campus and far away.

But Wiewel says PSU’s quality and affordability depend on state funding.

“Without an increase in funding, you can not grow to that size. Because if we have to keep raising tuition to cover all the costs, students will not come.”

A big player there is Governor John Kitzhaber.

Kitzhaber is behind the state’s 2025 college completion goals that are partially driving PSU’s expansion plans.

He has said that public education in Oregon is underfunded at all levels.

But Kitzhaber isn’t offering unconditional support. He questioned the rising costs, in a recent interview on OPB’s Think Out Loud.

“I will just throw this out and be a little provocative. We have not examined why the cost of higher education is going up as fast as it does.”

Kitzhaber says universities could raise more private money, a step that lawmakers may facilitate if they approve a bill to let universities create their own oversight boards.

Philanthropy is already part of PSU’s growth. The Schnitzer family is funding the big glass wall at Lincoln Hall. And that $60 million dollar project to re-build the business school? $40 million is state money. The rest is private - with $13 million still to raise.