EOU can't return to 1980's

July 23, 2007 11:00 pm

Our friend and colleague, Professor Bob Larison, offers an interesting and well-reasoned diagnosis of Eastern's current woes. We are grateful to Bob for starting this discussion, for understanding how we got here is certainly an essential step in correcting the problems. We offer here a very different hypothesis.

Professor Larison traces the problem to a "shift of institutional mission," "a lack of strategic focus," and points the finger, quite unfairly we believe, at former President Creighton. We demur on several grounds. Professor Larison's analysis ignores several significant external structural changes since the days of President Gilbert. It further misinterprets campus changes in the past decade or so.

We believe that many of the biggest causes of Eastern's enrollment and budget problems are external. The first was a quite conscious decision by the Board of Higher Education and the legislature to fundamentally change the formula by which tax dollars are allocated to the OUS institutions, from a cost-based to a revenue-based model. We were all warned by Dave Gilbert that this change would have serious negative consequences for Eastern, and sadly he was all too right about this.

The second external circumstance was not so much a change, but an acceleration of long running demographic trend. Rural areas are generally losing population, while urban and suburban regions are gaining. Of the ten counties in Eastern's regional mission, half lost population from 2000 to 2006 and only three showed any appreciable gain, although not one came close to the statewide increase. The sad fact is that the pool of college-age students in Eastern's backyard is shrinking, and that by itself makes a return to the old regional mission untenable.

Only with this most recent legislative session has the State of Oregon taken a first step to reverse a decade long disinvestment in higher education. In place of general fund dollars to operate our universities, we have relied on skyrocketing increases in tuition.

Besides being shortsighted, and grossly unfair to our students, this statewide, and largely conscious decision, has worked to the particular disadvantage of Eastern. One need only look at the data regarding to income levels in the ten country region and compare it to statewide data to see how the dramatic increases in the cost of a college degree would make it particularly hard on our traditional base of students.

The increased tuition and fees in the OUS system, coupled with policies from our neighbors to the north and east, have produced a very peculiar situation where in some cases, when all costs are considered, it is actually cheaper for students in our region to attend universities in Washington and Idaho.

All of these factors would present serious challenges for any institution like Eastern. So the obvious question is how should we respond to them. Professor Larison proposes a nostalgic return to the Eastern of the 1980s. We think that is quite impossible. The exclusively regional strategy worked when the structure of higher education supported it; that is simply no longer the case. President Creighton clearly saw how all of these changes were inexorably squeezing the institution. His strategy was to grow on-campus enrollment from 2000 to 3000. That has not come to pass for reasons both internal and external, but we think his vision was the right one. Much of his rhetoric focused on Eastern as "Oregon's Selective Undergraduate University," but in fact the actual changes were all aimed at increased enrollment by providing Eastern with a unique brand and marketing strategy to attract students well beyond our traditional region. We think a closer look at the data will clearly show that Eastern's actual admissions policies never appreciably changed; the curricular and program changes were dictated by the goal of increased enrollment; and that we never changed or abandoned any program or policy that was succeeding in attracting new students.

We would certainly agree that internal policy decisions were also central to the enrollment and financial crisis Eastern now faces. Many of those will need to be reexamined, but always in the context of the larger picture and the current structure of higher education in Oregon.

Eastern is a critical component of the OUS system and it's good to hear that the Chancellor and Board agree. But Eastern is also critically important to the economy of La Grande, Union County and the greater region. Our next presidents, Dixie Lund and her permanent successor, face challenges, both on and off campus, that are sobering.

We, like Bob Larison, are optimists. Eastern will retrench in the short-run, but flourish in the long-run. Many voices need to be heard.

We look forward to the next year confident that our institution, which has thrived since 1929, will triumph in the years to come.


Jeffery L. Johnson is a professor of philosophy and Colleen F. Johnson is a professor of economics at EOU.