OSU president tours region

By Dick Mason, The Observer May 16, 2012 12:50 pm

‘We have got to make things happen ourselves. The state is not the engine and never will be.’ — Edward Ray OSU president
‘We have got to make things happen ourselves. The state is not the engine and never will be.’ — Edward Ray OSU president

Oregon State University may be almost 350 miles from Union County, but this is not preventing it from helping to fuel the Grande Ronde Valley’s economic engine.

Fueling it in a bigger way than many people may realize.

This was one of the messages OSU President Edward Ray shared during a visit to La Grande on Tuesday. 

Speaking to The Observer’s editorial board, Ray said Oregon State brings in about $2.1 million to Union County directly each year via the OSU Extension Service office in Island City and the agricultural degree program it operates collaboratively with EOU.

OSU employs 41 people in Union County while another nine Oregon State employees live in Union County but work elsewhere. 

Ray said that $3.38 million is the combined economic impact of operations, capital and payroll spending by Oregon State University in Union County.

He said OSU’s economic impact is particularly vital during a time in which the timber industry in Northeast Oregon and the state overall has been devastated. He blames much of this on federal forest management policies. The policies have reduced the timber supply available to mills, causing many to close. 

Ray hopes OSU can help address this issue when it hires a new dean of its department of forestry in about two months, to succeed an individual who is retiring.

“We want to hire someone who will be on the forefront of making the wood products industry in Oregon vibrant,” Ray said. 

OSU Vice President Steven Clark said this morning that Ray wants someone who will also work to promote habitat and environmental health in forests.

Ray came to Oregon State almost a decade ago from Ohio State University. He noted that in Ohio only 1.7 percent of its land is federally owned. This is in dramatic contrast to Oregon, where 53 percent of its land is federally owned. Ray said his move has heightened his appreciation of the impact federal land regulations can have on a state. 

While addressing the economic impact OSU has on Union County, Ray noted that it extends past those employed by the university who work here.

He noted that farmers and ranchers are benefiting from research being conducted by OSU’s agriculture department and the services it provides through the Extension service.

Ray pointed out that one of the points made repeatedly to him in Union County is that growers of niche crops and the owners of small farms want the assistance OSU provides. The help not only allows farmers to raise more successful crops but also aids them with marketing.

The OSU president said that such help is critical for the economic health of Eastern Oregon as a whole. He said that without such assistance, “The income gap between the west and east (in Oregon) will keep growing.” 

Ray has been OSU’s president for nine years. The university’s enrollment has increased by 6,000 during this time and is now up to 25,000.

Ray projects OSU’s enrollment will soon approach 30,000 and will be between 32,000 and 35,000 by 2025.

He said that some people in Corvallis object to the increasing number of students in the community.

Ray finds this perplexing considering that Benton County, where Corvallis is located, has an unemployment rate of 6 percent, lower than much of the state, and that Corvallis has a housing vacancy rate of one half of a percent. He said the presence of OSU is a major reason for these two strong economic numbers.

OSU’s enrollment is growing for many reasons, including its collaborative program with all of the state’s community colleges.

He said that through it students at all 17 of the state’s community colleges can be simultaneously enrolled at OSU while attending community college. This makes it possible for community college students to seamlessly transfer to OSU.

Ray compared OSU’s collaboration program with community colleges to what EOU is doing via its new Eastern Promise program. 

Through the Eastern Promise, EOU and community colleges are collaborating with high schools to develop more opportunities for students to earn college credits from Eastern.

For example, steps may be taken to help high school teachers become qualified to teach Eastern courses at their schools.

Ray said that innovative programs like the Eastern Promise are necessary for the state’s university’s to succeed in an era when the state funding they are receiving is declining.

“We have got to make things happen ourselves. The state is not the engine and never will be,” Ray said. 

A step Ray hopes Oregon State can take in the future is to have four-year degree programs added to its OSU Cascades campus in Bend. 

Ray believes this would help the campus boost its enrollment from the 900 students it has now to between  3,000 and 5,000.

Presently, many students at the OSU Cascades campus take their first two years of college classes at Central Oregon Community College in Bend. They then attend the OSU Cascades campus for two years to earn a four-year degree. 

The OSU president believes that growth at the OSU Cascades campus would not hurt enrollment at EOU since it would bring more students into the Central and Eastern Oregon region. Ray said a number of these students might end up at EOU.

“There will be spillover effect. We need to create a vibrant and attractive entity,” Ray said.

In making this point, the OSU president noted that his university has a 61 percent graduation rate. However, this rate jumps to 65 percent if you include all the students who start at OSU but later transfer to a school within the Oregon University System to complete their degree requirements. 

Enrollment has grown at OSU since Ray came to Oregon State and so has private fundraising — dramatically.

OSU was raising $29 million a year when he came to OSU. Today, however, OSU is raising more than $100 million a year.

“We’ve done this during the worst economic recession in the past 70 years,” Ray said. 

OSU is presently in the midst of a $1 billion fundraising campaign that will end in 2014. The campaign for OSU started about six years ago with a much lower goal but it has been progressively raised because of the drive’s success. The campaign has now reached the $853 million mark. 

“We are one of only 29 public universities to ever launch a $1 billion campaign,” Ray said.

Ray was asked how he feels about the push being made in the state for all universities to have institutional boards that would help govern them.

“It would add another layer of bureaucracy,” Ray said. “There would be less accountability.”

Ray fears that such boards would rob universities of the flexibility they need to make the best use of their resources.