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The Oregonian: On higher education, it's finals time for the Legislature
Author: Oregonian Editorial Board
Posted: May 20, 2013

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

It now seems clear that Oregon universities will finish their academic year before the Oregon Legislature completes its restructuring of the university system. But with just a few weeks of the session left, and with budget issues capable of filling all that time, the Legislature should still try to avoid taking an incomplete.

Two bills, one setting out the universities' relationship with the new Higher Education Coordinating Committee and the other defining the new institutional boards of regents, have moved through the two houses' relevant committees into Ways and Means, with hearings in its education subcommittee scheduled for next Tuesday. The issues are too complicated, and the time left too short, to resolve all questions, but the Legislature can still make a good start this session.

If the end of the session is (we hope) coming near, other deadlines are not much further. On the schedule preferred by University of Oregon advocates, the governor's nomination process for local board members would begin in August, with Senate confirmation in September, and the boards in place and ready to issue bonds in early 2014.

"If everyone plays well together, I think we can get this done," says Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, co-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, who counts Southern Oregon University as a constituent. "If it fractures, then it falls apart."

Already, the governor's initial vision for a Department of Post-Secondary Education has vanished, at least for this session. Remaining is his creation of a Higher Education Coordination Commission, overseeing the universities, the community colleges and the state scholarship program. HECC would coordinate its constituents' budget requests and then submit them to the governor, and have approval rights over new programs. The commission would also oversee the educational compacts involving the universities and colleges.

Still unclear is the function, or survival, of the current Board of Higher Education, which might provide governance to any universities without local boards, or might oversee shared services such as payroll, human resources and information technology. Ideally, the process would be streamlined, with fewer boards rather than more.

Proposed legislation also sets out the powers of the new institutional boards to be named by the governor. They would hire university presidents (although with the governor naming the board members, he would likely still have an influence), set tuition (with a limit of 5 percent annual increases for resident undergraduates), prepare budgets and, everyone hopes, raise a lot of money. Each board would have a voting student member and a nonvoting faculty member.

Several concerns remain, most prominently the status of the regional universities: Southern, Western, Eastern and the Oregon Institute of Technology. Now, some regionals express interest in having their own boards. How a concept driven by the fundraising expectations of the University of Oregon would work for the regionals is not clear, but it's vital that the regionals have protection and options. Not only do they play an important geographic role, but they are essential routes for many first-generation college students.

Finally, the system needs a clear flow chart, and a sense of the different roles of the chancellor of higher education (if there is one) and the executive director of HECC. A system intended to create autonomy might also allow it in the composition of the boards; if Oregon State or Portland State wants different student or faculty presences, flexibility should allow it.

This overhaul is intended to be a major advance for Oregon universities, and should be. But it cannot follow the frequent Oregon pattern of offering restructuring in the place of funding.

As Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, the other Ways and Means co-chair, puts it, "I'd like to see the biennium where we could put another $100 million into community colleges and another quarter-billion into higher education." It might have more effect than restructuring, but restructuring might help the money be used better.