Forging ahead at EOU

By Bob Davies, EOU President April 13, 2010 07:02 am

Recently, there has been much discussion about the structure of public higher education in our state. While I do agree that a dialog about organization is important, I firmly believe the conversation must focus on how we can better serve our current and future students and the citizens of Oregon.

I view these discussions of organizational structure through the lens of continuing to foster growth at EOU; serving Eastern Oregon and rural communities to the best of our ability; and controlling our resources and destiny and not following the ideas of, albeit well-meaning, individuals who have never set foot in Eastern Oregon, let alone on our campus in La Grande or on one of our 16 sites around the state.

Hard work is paying off and EOU is now on a vibrant trajectory. We recorded our largest freshmen class and highest total enrollment in history — 473 and 4,000 respectively. Mountaineer athletic teams earned national recognition; choir and theater performances dazzled audiences; faculty are receiving national and international recognition; the list goes on! Our work now is to develop an organizational structure that will further this growth and increase our ability to serve students and the region.

So where does that leave us? I do believe we need a viable and stable university system that manages the overall portfolio of public higher education. EOU depends on the expertise, skills and combined political advocacy to remain strong, and I know my fellow regional university presidents feel the same. We also feel the need for greater latitude and flexibility to manage as universities, and not to be micromanaged. There are more line item controls in the budget for higher education (6,000-plus) than for prisons, K-12, community colleges and health and welfare combined. Flexibility is sorely needed.

Higher education is service-based, yet we are treated identically to transaction-based operations. This leads to the notion that we can become more efficient by merely cutting costs, or putting more students in a room. Learning is a process, not an assembly line.

The idea that fund balances may be swept to offset losses in other agencies is absurd. These funds are created by student tuition dollars and are needed to support new technology and other priorities unique to education. It is not wise public policy to use monies spent by students for their education to pay the deficits of other state agencies. Higher education is not a “cost center.” Rather it is an investment in the future of our state, as well as our communities, economy, health systems, culture and civic well-being. We cannot shortchange that investment.

I am very much in favor of creating a compact with the state that clearly outlines expectations — for example, increasing the access to higher education in rural areas of the state — and through this agreement, provide the needed flexibility to achieve these goals while holding higher education accountable to specific outcomes.

Let us be leaders in achieving the important goals of the state and serving our unique missions. Hold each institution to a specific set of goals and expectations created by analyzing the strengths of the university and the needs of the region and state. Provide the appropriate funding model, reflective of the university’s market niche, and enable them to achieve their goals by allowing flexibility needed to adapt and meet the changing environment and local needs.

I strongly believe in the fundamental benefits of public higher education that serves the people. This type of education is unique to America and we must preserve it. It enables class mobilization, fosters innovation and provides the foundation for a true democracy to exist. As such, we all must ensure it is successful.

The discussion of the proper structure for Oregon’s public universities must address these public and individual benefits. Whatever structure is utilized, we must answer these questions: How will we enable access to higher education throughout the entire state? How can we make sure it is affordable? How will we keep the university engaged in the communities it serves?

I am proud to say that EOU is a critical component of Oregon’s total public higher education system in accessibility, affordability and engagement.

Bob Davies is president of Eastern Oregon University.