The Oregonian's David Sarasohn: In Oregon, it sounds like higher education is important
Author: David Sarasohn, The Oregonian
Posted: December 16, 2013

Read the original column here in The Oregonian.


At the annual Oregon Business Summit Monday, people said all the right things about higher education and how crucial it is to Oregon's future.

"We don't have enough engineers being grown here today, so we have to recruit them from all over the state, all over the country, all over the world," said Sam Blackman, CEO of Elemental Technologies. "Recruiting is the number one issue we face.

Passionately declaring his support for next November's referendum on the state issuing bonds to set up a college scholarship fund, Senate President Peter Courtney said, "You can't say there is access when there is not affordability. It is going to cost money. Suck it up."

And, of course, there were invocations of the state's now official 40-40-20 goal, the commitment that by 2025 40 percent of Oregon adults will have at least a four-year degree and another 40 percent will have at least a two-year degree or a skill certificate. Oregon these days knows all the words about the importance of higher education, especially when we're talking about our economic future.

In this year's legislative session, higher education didn't even take its usual drubbing, coming through with some stabilization of funding and advancing a governance reorganization that's supposed to make up some of the difference. Oregon's political and business leadership is publicly committed to the importance of higher education.

But Friday at the Portland City Club, Portland State University president Wim Wiewel noted that before coming here five years ago he'd been at universities in Maryland, New York and Illinois, and "I don't think there's a place where the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of supporting higher education is wider than here."

Oregon always has been a place of wide open spaces.

This fall, after a legislative session that claimed to stabilize higher education funding, Wiewel's PSU has to cut $15 million, about 5 percent of its budget,a process that includes academic cuts and faculty upheaval. That's partly due to the end of the federal stimulus program, and the flattening of the enrollment and tuition revenue increase that PSU and other universities were enjoying during the low points of the Great Recession. But it's also traceable to the $15 million less that Portland State gets from the state than it got five years ago.

And Portland State is in a far better situation than Southern Oregon University, where earlier this month President Mary Cullinan formally declared "retrenchment," allowing the university to reopen faculty contracts and likely shut down some programs. The state's regional universities, especially Southern and Eastern, have the kind of problems that institutional boards won't resolve, although they're centers for just the first-generation college students that will be crucial to the state's getting anywhere near 40-40-20.

"Retrenchment is the only option for SOU," said Cullinan. "... The new landscape offers less certainty about enrollment and state funding, and a greater certainty that only through affordable tuition can we keep SOU accessible for Oregonians. We need resources to support and enhance in-demand degree programs and help students stay in school and earn a degree."

The strains in the state university system are visible a lot closer than Ashland. Friday, University of Oregon President Michael Gottfredson – who arrived last year from the University of California, Irvine and can still seem a little stunned by the difference in atmosphere – noted that UO received 43 percent less for its operating budget from the state than it did in 2008, although its enrollment had increased.

About higher education disinvestment, Gottfredson noted, "The trend is national, but it's fair to say it's been more radical in Oregon."

Earlier this year, although universities prefer to boast about their soaring reputations, Gottfredson issued a report demonstrating how far short the University of Oregon fell in many categories compared to the state universities it likes to consider its peers.

None of this is new. But it's all still true at a time when Oregonians, in business conferences and official gatherings and political campaigns, now talk about the importance of higher education, as a public good and as a bulwark of Oregon's economic future.

There's a lot of space in the gap between rhetoric and reality.

But it's hard to build anything there.

David Sarasohn, associate editor, can be reached at 503-221-8523 or See other writing at