EOU's problems began when it lost sight of its regional mission

July 17, 2007 11:00 pm

Your article detailing the current problems facing Eastern Oregon University was very interesting. The article implied that the central problem faced by the university was structural while other comments indicated leadership was the primary problem.

I would disagree. The central problem is a lack of a strategic focus or mission that is understood, measurable and appropriate for a regional state university. For an appropriate mission, I would suggest we look into the recent past to the presidency of Dr. David Gilbert and the regional mission he developed and applied to the university. Dr. Gilbert saw a mission that was centered on the educational and service needs of the people and communities of Eastern Oregon. Today, we might expand that reach to include all of rural Oregon.

Degree programs developed and expanded were ones that met regional needs. If Eastern could not develop the degrees, we went to the Oregon University System for cooperative programs from the larger institutions in the system. The OSU Agriculture program and the OHSU Nursing program are the result of this effort.

The nationally recognized Division of Distance Education was developed as a tool to deliver degree programs via non-traditional means to serve place bound students in the rural region. The Regional Services Institute (RSI) was developed to provide professional grant writing and lobbying expertise to the cities and counties of Eastern Oregon.

Admission standards for students from rural school districts were reduced reflecting the reality of the difficulty most small school districts had in preparing their students for college level work. These students were perfectly intelligent but simply had not developed the level of academic skills necessary for success in college because of the limited capabilities of the K-12 school systems they came from.

The university maintained a transitional program for these students that allowed them to come to Eastern and develop the study, math and writing skills needed for success and then they transitioned into the regular student body.

The university developed and instituted a progressive advising program that was centrally monitored and administered that provided excellent advising and tracking for students — especially the transitional students to insure their success.

The university maintained two-year degree programs in a number of vocational areas that were well populated and served real job needs in the rural region. Normally, two-year programs are delivered by the community college system but there were counties that were not served by a community college and the need was there. If Eastern saw an educational or service need in our region, we responded to that need if it was in any way possible. The success of the university was based in the quality of our service to our rural region.

Today, we do not have the focus we once had. RSI no longer exists. The advising program no longer exists. Admission standards have been raised and the break given to students from the rural region was eliminated. The transition program for assisting students with academic skill development was eliminated. Degree programs are not chosen primarily based on regional needs.

These changes resulted from a fundamental shift of institutional mission by President Creighton (not the current President Fatemi) who followed Dr. Gilbert. He wanted to make Eastern into an elite small liberal arts university with very selective admission. An admirable goal, but really not well suited to the situation at Eastern and the region it serves.

EOU had a national reputation as a quality regional service-based university when Dr. Creighton arrived on campus. The decline of Eastern began on that day. The changed mission and its current variation are failures and are the central cause of the current problems at Eastern.

I would suggest that EOU officials shift the mission of the university back to its role as a primary educational and service provider for the rural areas of the state. Eastern was a national model for regional state universities when it pursued this mission and it can be again.

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Robert Larison, Ph.D, is an associate professor of business (emeritus) at Eastern Oregon University.