Portland Business Journal: PSU ‘ReThinks’ philosophy for future
Author: Matthew Kish, Portland Business Journal
Posted: February 8, 2013

Read the original story here in the Portland Business Journal.

Portland State University has launched a wide-ranging conversation about how it educates students, an effort that could significantly impact the state’s ambitious education goals.

Last fall, President Wim Wiewel hired Provost Sona Andrews and charged her with leading ReThink PSU, an effort to address the numerous headwinds faced by universities and community colleges.

The effort includes $3 million for the Provost’s Challenge, a contest that will give awards ranging from $5,000 to $350,000 for ideas to transform how Portland State operates. The money comes from fees paid by students who take online courses.

The big questions are on the table: What’s so magical about 80 credit hours, the standard for earning a bachelor’s degree? Should students get credit for taking free online courses offered by Stanford and other reputable universities? How can the university test competency?

“It’s a recognition that things are changing, not only the way we deliver curriculum but also access to education,” Andrews said.

Wiewel said the effort results from the numerous forces beating down on universities, including record student loan debt and declining state support.

“During the last two years I’ve been thinking hard about the fact that higher education is going through a time of absolutely massive change and major disruption,” he said.

Oregon lawmakers are also pushing an ambitious plan — referred to as 40-40-20 — to get bachelor’s degrees in the hands of 40 percent of Oregonians, associate’s degrees or some other certification in the hands of 40 percent and high school diplomas in the remaining 20 percent.

In order to hit those goals, Oregon’s education system will need to produce more graduates, likely without a corresponding jump in funding.

Wiewel estimates Portland State will need to accommodate 40,000 students by 2025, a roughly 33 percent increase.

“For us to succeed as an institution and particularly to meet the governor’s goals, we have to rethink our basic model of how we do education,” Wiewel said. “We can’t just tinker on the edges and the margins.”

The effort is also a recognition that online education has changed. It’s no longer the purview of niche for-profit providers. It’s now embraced by the likes of universities such as Stanford and Harvard that offer free online courses.

“It becomes very hard for a university like PSU to say, ‘We don’t like that you took Introduction to Economics from that Harvard Nobel Prize winner,’” Wiewel said. “That raises the question of how do you certify knowledge gained elsewhere.”

In order to start the conversation, Andrews drew up a plan to engage all corners of the Portland State campus.

The Provost’s Challenge encouraged proposals from faculty and administrators.

“It’s a recognition that the leadership of the institution can’t come up with the answers,” Andrews said.

Andrews hoped to receive 30 proposals. She got 162.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “I was surprised by the number and the level of enthusiasm.”

The proposals are posted on a website and open to review and comment from the community.

“This has been a terrific way to unearth innovative thinking across campus and to create a dialogue about important issues we are facing as an institution,” said Cindy Cooper, director of the Impact Entrepreneurs program in the School of Business Administration, in an email.

Cooper is part of a team that proposed an online certificate program in social entrepreneurship.

Revisions are due Feb. 15. The university expects to make awards for 10 to 12 of the proposals in early April.

Fast Fact

To review or comment on a proposal, go to