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The Oregonian: Restructuring moves beyond Oregon's big universities
Author: David Sarasohn
Posted: March 24, 2014

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

It seems just a few years -- and one University of Oregon president – ago that some deep-pocketed Ducks had an idea. The university, they proposed, should have its own board of trustees, separate from the State Board of Higher Education, which would not only reflect its proclaimed status as “the flagship” of the state system but produce a blizzard of checks, many with swooshes on them.

It took several years, but for a state that has traditionally funded its higher education system with the coins found in legislative couches, the lure was irresistible. Now the UO has its own board, and Portland State and Oregon State do, too. And as of the start of this month, all four of the smaller universities, now called TRU – for Technical and Regional Universities, or maybe the cable network – have each applied for their own boards. The State Board of Higher Education will vote on the applications April 4, likely putting itself out of business.

But this time, nobody expects institutional boards stacked with members sitting high on thick wallets.

“Perhaps the board of Western Oregon University might be instrumental in raising funds,” says Western’s president, Mark Weiss, “but in my view that is not its primary purpose.”

What he wants, he says, is Western to be overseen by people focused on Western.

“I think the University of Oregon precedent really isn’t relevant,” explains Matt Donegan, president of the state board. The real momentum, says Donegan, is the system reorganization based on the Higher Education Coordinating Committee and the Oregon Education Investment Board, driving decision-making both upward and downward.

RWOU may well be in the strongest position to chart its own TRU course. Its financial position is strong, says Weiss, and it has room and capacity for growth at a time when the three large universities are scraping their heads against their campus ceilings. Western has been recognized nationally for its success with first-generation students – 53 percent of its Hispanic students graduate within six years – and it has expanded its international enrollment from 20 to 300, with a particular drive in China.

International students increase diversity, says Weiss, but of course the increase is also about something else.

“It helps pay for the decline in state funding,” he notes, “which we all hope will reverse.” WOU has been making its gains at a time when its state support was dropping from $19.1 million to $13.8 million. There’s been some restoration, but Weiss doesn’t expect Western to see $19 million in state aid again until 2020.

The students who will enroll at Western in 2020, of course, are currently in middle school.

The institutional boards may no longer be about money, but a whole lot else still is.

This hopeful reorganization of the state’s higher ed system is happening at a time of considerable upheaval in its universities. With such an overwhelming dependence on tuition revenue, any dip in enrollment – the kind created by even a mild economic recovery – gives a balance sheet a deep red tinge.

Portland State is facing the prospect of the system’s first faculty strike ever, a dispute that has something to do with governance and policy but a lot to do with money and Oregon’s longtime bottom-crawling faculty salaries. Portland State now has its own board, but it’s not generally expected to endow buildings, faculty chairs or much other furniture.

This month, Southern Oregon University announced it would reduce, in various ways, a total of 25 faculty positions by next year, and a total of 61 by 2018. A range of academic majors are going with them, and student-faculty ratios will rise sharply. A student lobbying effort in the recent legislative session produced $500,000, easing the pain a bit, and reminding the state of the reinvestment that needs to happen.

The state, notes Donegan, is not particularly skilled at reaching down and running universities; “The state adds value with strategic investment.” Mark Weiss doesn’t expect new board members to produce wads of cash themselves, but thinks they might be helpful making Western’s case to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Because however things are arranged, some more money will be needed to produce the kind of universities we say we want.

Oregon now seems likely to have not just one but seven different university boards. And they might even be helpful to a state higher education system vastly higher on aspiration than appropriation, if everyone involved can just remember something that Oregon always tends to forget:

It’s a structure, not a solution.