State needs to protect regionals in university reform

By Observer editorial March 31, 2010 02:14 pm
Amove is afoot among members of the State Board of Higher Education and the Governor’s Reset Cabinet, which is looking at ways to reduce the cost of government, to come up with a new funding model for the state’s universities. Among the considerations is making the universities more independent, especially when it comes to finances.

The board is seriously considering a report issued last year by former University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer. In his report, Frohnmayer said the universities needed more freedom to raise money. He recommended that the Legislature give the state board authority to let the UO, Oregon State and Portland State become public corporations, which is what Oregon Health & Science University is.
Presidents of the smaller universities have apparently said they want more independence, too.

Frohnmayer’s report might have some merit when it comes to Oregon’s large universities, which have benefactors and research resources that the smaller universities simply don’t have. A move toward greater independence and less reliance on the state financially could doom Oregon’s smaller universities.

UO might see itself stepping out of the state’s shadow because of the success it has had with fundraising over the past several years. But EOU, Western, Southern and OSU Cascades don’t have the backers with the wherewithal that someone like Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike and UO grad, has. EOU has to scrap for every dollar it gets, whether public or private.

Oregon needs its regional offering of universities. The regionals play an important role in higher education in the state. Some members of the State Board of Higher Education might believe that a move to independence would foster better education. The reality could be that only the fittest, or biggest, survive. Not everyone wants to head to Portland, Corvallis or Eugene to be able to attend college. The regional universities fill an important niche in Oregon education.

The board needs to review the concept carefully and consider all implications of what greater independence — a.k.a. privatization — might mean for all of Oregon.