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Evan Bryan, Eastern Oregon University’s student body president, is a strong supporter of the hybrid model for governance of the state’s four regional universities. (PHIL BULLOCK/The Observer)
Tough decision looms for campus leadership
The question has people buzzing in Oregon higher education circles.
How will Oregon’s four regional state universities be governed 1-1/2 years from now in the wake of radical changes triggered by the passage of Senate Bill 270 last summer?
Nobody knows, but this much is certain: Oregon legislators are interested in learning more about an option known as the hybrid model, one which combines elements of the institutional board and consortium board models. So strong is the interest among lawmakers that the Legislature’s Joint Interim Special Committee on University Governance and Operations is conducting a hearing on it today, one at which EOU President Bob Davies will speak at. Davies said it is significant that legislators want to learn more about the hybrid model but stressed that people should not read too much into it.
“Everything is still on the table. We can still have a robust discussion (about any of the other governance options),” Davies said.
Evan Bryan, EOU’s student body president, is among the strong supporters of the hybrid model. Bryan believes so strongly in it that he went to the state capitol on Wednesday to encourage legislators to support this governance option.
“It is definitely a model which will bring consensus with folks,” Bryan said.
He said that in meetings with students, faculty and community members, the hybrid model is the one that garners the most support. Bryan likes the model because he believes it combines the strengths of the other options.
“It brings different fragments together in the institutions’ best interest,” Bryan said.
The hybrid model is a mix of the institutional board and consortium board models. Under the institutional board model, each of the four regional universities would be governed by its own board of trustees. Under the consortium board model, the four universities would be governed by a single board.
The hybrid option calls for Eastern, Western Oregon University, Southern Oregon University and Oregon Institute of Technology to have their own independent boards. A president’s council would also be in place, one comprised of the head of each institution and their staff. The council members would work collectively to help the four universities share resources and information and purchase services in a cost-effective manner. The four universities, for example, could save thousands of dollars by pooling their resources to pay for the same legal and payroll services.
“We would be collaborating instead of competing,” said WOU President Mark Weiss, a supporter of the hybrid model.
Davies has not decided if he will recommend the hybrid model, but he is intrigued by it.
“I’m interested in it because it takes the best of the institutional board and consortium board models and brings them together,” Davies said. “In doing so it addresses the weaknesses of the institutional boards and the consortium boards.”
Travis Meuwissen, the student body president at WOU, said that on his campus, students are not talking about the hybrid model but seem split on the institutional and consortium board options.
“They want what is best for the financial integrity of Western,” Meuwissen said.
WOU students see a big financial risk in having an institutional board because Western would be on its own when competing against larger universities for funding and programs.
“They are afraid that it would affect Western negatively (in terms of finances),” Meuwissen said.
Big three break away
Students, faculty and staff at the four schools are mulling over governance options since the passage of Senate Bill 270 by the Legislature last July. The bill allowed the state’s three largest universities — Oregon State University, the University of Oregon and Portland State University — to break from the Oregon State Board of Higher Education and operate independently while being governed by their own institutional boards. These boards have the authority to hire and fire university presidents, set tuition and approve budgets and new programs. OSU, UO and PSU will each be governed by their own institutional boards beginning July 1.
The bill also opened the door to the possibility of EOU, WOU, SOU and OIT having their own institutional boards. The presidents of these four schools have until April 4 to inform the Oregon State Board of Higher Education of their intent.
Regardless of what the presidents of EOU, WOU, OIT and SOU decide to recommend, they will be working closely with the State Board of Higher Education, which will be disbanded July 1, 2015, by SB 270. The State Board of Higher Education is chaired by Matt Donegan of Portland. Donegan, in a written statement, said he believes the time is right to change how the state’s universities are governed.
“Our previous system was developed decades ago, for another time. Today’s students face a completely different set of opportunities and challenges and, fortunately, Oregon is now modernizing the way we govern higher education in our state,’’ Donegan said.
The strength of four
Weiss believes that if the regional universities decide to pursue the establishment of a consortium board, it would be critical that all four are members. Should one university opt to have its own institutional board, he believes the consortium board idea would have to be dropped.
“(A consortium board) would be less viable if there are less than four (schools in the consortium),” Weiss said. “It would erode the benefit.”
EOU, SOU, WOU and OIT have a combined enrollment of about 21,000 students, which is comparable to the approximate enrollments of Oregon (24,000), Portland State (27,000) and Oregon State (28,000).
On the table
A fourth governance option on the table but garnering little support is the branch campus model. One or all four of the regional universities would be affiliated with OSU, UO or PSU under this model. Weiss believes that being affiliated with one of the state’s three largest universities would be dangerous because his school might be overshadowed.
“I’m worried that we would become an afterthought,” Weiss said.
Meuwissen said there is no support among WOU students for the branch campus model.
“They are strongly opposed to the affiliate model. Students are very passionate about this,” Meuwissen said.
He said that Western students are worried that their school would be swallowed up and lose its identity as a branch campus of a much larger university.
“We would lose what makes Western, Western,” Meuwissen said.
Bryan said there is no support for the branch campus model among Eastern students. He said students are worried that Eastern would lose its independence and adaptability.
“If we were afflicted with a branch campus, the main concern is that we would lose flexibility,” Bryan said.
Another worry is that intercollegiate athletics at Eastern would take a hit. A number of EOU student-athletes have told Bryan they are worried that Eastern would lose its sports programs if the school becomes a branch campus.
Regardless of which governance option is selected for Oregon’s four regional universities, it will be some time before questions concerning them are answered.
“There are a lot of scary unknowns,” Meuwissen said.